The electric crescendo overhead went strangely silent as the thunder and lightning gave way to the drumbeat of rain on the rusty tin roof. The Hawk feverishly spun the dials on his old field radio trying to escape the crackling static. This storm was seriously interrupting his obsessive nightly ritual.
“Break!—Break!—Break! Any aircraft this net! I have air warning data. Out of Lima Zulu West on a direction of 240 degrees, max ord 3600, impacting grid 926324. How’s your copy?”
The Hawk was a forward artillery observer in August, 1969. The whole fucking North Vietnamese Army Second Division had secretly bunkered into the Que Son and Hiep Duc Valleys south of Danang. It was an unholy 120 degrees and the stench of death was everywhere. US infantry units were getting chewed up by disciplined communist forces which had gone undetected for months. The ferocious combat and relentless heat combined to produce hell.
The Hawk was desperately trying to save Bravo Company from being overrun. The dinks had them caught in a blistering crossfire near the Old French Hooch. Air strikes were on the way, but he had to drop some arty in there ASAP to buy time until the jet jockeys could drop their shit. Bravo already had 6 KIA’s and 9 more badly wounded. What he did in the next three minutes would decide how many grunts would be left alive after the F-4’s unloaded their ordnance.
He was feverishly puffing on a Winston as sweat boiled under his jungle fatigues. AK-47 rounds buzzed around the makeshift Company CP. 82 mm mortar rounds were chopping up the earth as the NVA walked their fire into the perimeter. An RPG crashed into the already badly pocked wall of the Old French Hooch. Bravo was about to be overwhelmed by well-trained NVA regulars who were now chattering just inside their sagging company perimeter.
The Hawk’s voice was shaky as he called in the co-ordinates, “Red Leg 3-0, this is Red Leg 1-0. I have an urgent fire mission. Unit in heavy contact about to be overrun,” he bellowed into the hand set. “Grid 926324. Fire for effect.”
That done, he tried to think of things he might have overlooked. Moments later four white phosphorous artillery rounds pounded into the valley floor near the Old French Hooch.
The problem was, without a defined perimeter for Bravo Company, the rounds found an unintended mark—the chaotic Bravo Company CP. Molten chemicals spewed over the Hawk and the other GI’s. Several grunts ran screaming in agony toward the advancing enemy as their sweat-soaked fatigues melted along with their flesh. The Hawk was knocked senseless by the blast, but he was spared a deadly chemical bath by the shelter of a large pile of old bricks left from the dilapidated Hooch. Cries of flaming human anguish blended in with the cacophonic sounds of the fire fight.
The Hawk never recovered from that ghastly incident which defined his tour in the Nam. He was exonerated for the misfire by his Company Commander and the Battalion CO. Battery C shot white phosphorous rounds reflexively because they were already locked and loaded.
Back in the world the Hawk—a previously free spirit from California—became a heavy smoker, drinker, and drugger. He drifted from job to job, never quite fully taking hold, before eventually settling in the ancient Uwharrie Mountains of central North Carolina. There he lived in solitude on an isolated 22 acre farm, surrounded by the National Forest. A three-mile, pot-holed, dirt road kept visitors to a minimum. The Hawk thrived on isolation.
He lived on VA payments. He was 30 percent disabled due to earlier exposure to Agent Orange and his near death at the French Hooch. Heart and lung problems sapped some of his strength, but nightmares from the errant Willie Pete rounds consumed him. He eventually journeyed east to enroll in the gunsmithing program at a tiny community college.
As much as the Hawk was haunted by the Jungle War, he was surprisingly fascinated by its artifacts. He hoarded combat memorabilia—helmets, dud grenades, jungle boots, c-rations—anything the grunts used in the jungle. His old farmhouse was clogged with stacks of US Army surplus equipment. Sprinkled amid this clutter were scores of empty beer cans and ashtrays overflowing with piles of rancid cigarette butts.
In an odd way, this chaos provided a psychological crutch for the emotionally shaky Hawk, who was always just a thin thread away from unravelling.
During the burning summer of 2014 he was ferreting out surplus gear in one of his favorite local haunts—the Uwharrie General Store. Nestled hard by NC 109 in the National Forest, the store was crammed with hunting and fishing gear, groceries, and beer.
The proprietor was retired First Sergeant, Hoss Gonsalez, who relocated his family from Texas so he too could enroll in the gunsmithing program. Hoss sold refurbished fire arms in a back corner of the store, and he was the Hawk’s only real friend. Gonsalez was plump and jovial. He served in the same battalion in the Nam but at a different time. When things got especially rough with the Hawk, Gonsalez periodically performed impromptu suicide interventions.
Hoss was a procurement genius. He plied the internet locating and buying old combat gear from the Nam—most of which he sold to his friend for a song. That helped to keep the Hawk fixated on something other than the grim events of 1969. This summer Hoss performed a coup de grace. He located an old PRC-25 field radio. It even had two barely functioning batteries which still held a modest charge.
The Hawk was elated! He placed the relic radio smack in the center of his living room, clearing out piles of musty jungle fatigues in the process. He used an old pickup truck battery with frayed red wires to recharge the radio cells. It was a jack-legged setup. Sometimes sparks flew and acrid smoke hung in the humid air. Damned if that sketchy old radio didn’t work after all!
He spent countless hours clutching the battered handset, and he was mesmerized and maybe a bit haunted by the hissing sound produced by the empty radio freq. One late drunken night, amid much static, some military chatter crackled out of the speaker. The Hawk instantly surmised that the transmission was coming from Ft. Bragg troops on maneuvers in the National Forest. They came every summer, and he had just seen GI’s in desert fatigues in the General Store loading up on beer and cigs.
The Hawk became an enthralled if silent participant in their radio transmissions. He hung on every word as he spent hours keeping the PRC-25 charged. This August produced searing heat, often reaching 100 degrees. The ancient Uwharries were not totally unlike the Central Highlands surrounding the Que Son and Hiep Duc Valleys. No lush rice paddies in the vals, but steep enough to be a bitch for GI’s to hump up carrying a full rucksack.
The intense summer heat was suddenly punctuated by daily afternoon thunderstorms with intense electrical ferocity. At the Hawk’s isolated farmhouse, his favorite nocturnal pastime of fondling and listening to the 45 year-old PRC-25 was disrupted by explosive lightning bolts which in turn produced unbearable static.
The Hawk tried to compensate for these interruptions by chain smoking more Winstons, drinking extra beer, and puffing a fat joint here and there for diversion. He proudly rolled his own reefers with Uwharrie Gold, the local cash crop. The federal land surrounding his old farmhouse was sprinkled with marijuana patches carefully tended by gun-toting local entrepreneurs riding powerful ATV’s. Forest Rangers burned some of the tall green stashes, but there were too many to eradicate completely. The local grapevine also hinted that there were protective payoffs to the underpaid Feds.
As August wound down the Hawk spiraled into one of his periodic depressions. The anniversary of his Bravo Company disaster loomed, and it took a sinister grip on his psyche. One night a near tornado ripped through the Uwharries. Torrential rains and soaring winds threatened to rip the rusty tin roof off the old farmhouse.
The Hawk sprawled on his living room couch drunkenly clutching his cherished handset. The empty push crackled with static from the electrical barrage overhead. The Hawk should have been terrified by this meteorological maelstrom, but he was totally numb with eternal, overpowering guilt.
A lightning bolt found his old brick chimney. Loose bricks and mortar clattered down on the tin roof. Suddenly there was a lull in the tempest not unlike the coming of a hurricane’s eye. Then the Hawk heard the unimaginable! The raggedy speaker of his PRC-25 crackled to faint but unmistakable life.
“Red Leg 1-0, this is Parker Pen 1-0, over.” Hawk’s long dormant call sign once again echoed out over a military freq.
“Red Leg 1-0, this is Parker Pen 1-0, unit in contact! Gooks in our perimeter. Emergency fire mission!” The Hawk’s body went rigid. His bloodshot blue eyes popped out of his head like laser darts. The old handset snapped up to his mouth as he barked, “Parker Pen 1-0, this is Red Leg 1-0. I have you Lima Charlie, how me, over?”
The bedraggled jungle vet trembled with fear as the pace of the radio chatter escalated to a frantic tempo. “Red Leg 1-0, request an urgent fire mission, saturation on grid 926324. No markers! Fire for effect now. The gooks are so close I can hear them whispering to each other and their safeties are clicking off right in my ear!”
Nearly fifty years of torment ebbed in the Hawk’s mind. He sat up tall on his patchwork sofa and instantly tuned back into the Jungle War. Decades of PTSD and guilt gave way to a soldier’s duty and training.
“Red Leg 3-0, this is Red Leg 1-0. I have a fire mission. Unit over run at grid 926324. Fire for effect! In another minute they will be wiped out!” The Hawk was operating on pure adrenaline as he relayed a repeat fire mission to LZ West and the 155 mm howitzers of Battery C. The big guns boomed. Their incoming rounds sounded like a fast arriving train on the Chicago El.
It seemed like an eternity before Hawk heard Capt. Gayler’s sharp Texas twang spit out from his old speaker. “Red-Leg 1-0, Parker Pen 1-0. Your shit came in on the dime! The gooks are pulling back. You got some GI’s out here that want to hug your neck when we get back up on the hill. Tell the boys at Red Leg 3-0, good shooting!”
Dawn seeped into the Uwharries like a foggy stream of cold mercury. The day promised more summer heat. The Hawk struggled out of his front door into the weed-choked yard. The PRC-25 now stood stone cold silent in his living room, the battery long since exhausted. George Hawkins was completely spent, but for the first time in forty-five years he felt no responsibility for anything. His long neglected body and mind felt strangely cleansed. Had it been a drunken dream? Or had a long lost radio transmission from the Nam finally arrived bringing redemption?
Late September found the Hawk pedaling west up the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge. He was riding a shiny Schwinn Paramount outfitted with bulging pannier bags. He was bicycling home to California where he would join an old buddy to open an arcade on the funky Santa Cruz Pier. On weekends they planned to enjoy a 1950 Packard Super 88 Victoria. His buddy got it for a cool 38 grand on eBay. Strangers along his homeward route often asked about the medal with a multicolored ribbon carefully pinned to his pannier. It was the Bronze Star, an honor secured for him by a grateful infantry captain, William Gayler, from Mineral Wells, Texas. They would speak often by telephone over the years ahead.
The Hawk was finally free. He often lay awake in his sleeping bag gazing up at the comforting stars. Sometimes sleep would finally creep in like a blackened gook sapper. Then he would suddenly snap awake to the sound of his own strained but calm voice: ”This is Red Leg 1-0, I hear you Lima Charlie. How me?” Tears would be streaming down his weathered cheeks.