A Bad Attitude: Novel from the Vietnam War
345th Transportation Company
Thu Duc, Republic of Vietnam
The screen door slams behind him and I've got the motherfucker locked in the sights of my M16.
He's Sergeant First Class Marion J. Bragg, hands-down winner of the 1968 Biggest Prick in the Army award. He's also the acting First Sergeant of the 345th Transportation Company. He hates my guts and the feeling is mutual.
I'm Farnsworth. Until a month ago, I was the company clerk of this chickenshit outfit. Now I'm on permanent guard duty. They actually gave me an automatic weapon with live ammunition and put me in a sandbagged guard tower. Big mistake.
Bragg is wearing his usual starched and pressed jungle fatigues, with a spit shine on the slices of leather at the toes and heels of his jungle boots. I guess he's trying to do his part to bring a little bit of good old army discipline to the backward nations of the Third World.
After glancing up at the bright sun, he tucks a swagger stick under his arm, adjusts his sunglasses and squares away his OD army-issue baseball cap. Then he begins his march, pacing off a perfect rectangle in front of the company orderly room. He's almost strutting through the dusty jeep tracks. As he comes to an imaginary corner, he executes what he thinks is a smart military turn and heads off at a precise right angle. He does this shit every day at noon, eager as a frat boy at beer call. It's like the noon mill whistle back in The World—you could set your watch to it.
My guard tower is forty yards away and twelve feet up in the air. I shift position a little to the left and rest my right forearm on the rough plastic weave of the sandbag in front of me. I try to keep the band of white skin between Bragg's hat brim and his sunglasses in my sights. I ignore the heat and the flies and the sweat trickling down the back of my neck as I follow Bragg's cadence. I make calculations for distance and windage.
He makes two more turns and I have the narrow bright target back in my sights.
"Squeeze, don't jerk," I say. My voice is almost a whisper. I take in a slow breath and gently pull the trigger towards me.
A single clean dark hole appears in the middle of Bragg's forehead. He crumples backwards and falls to the dirt. A fountain of blood squirts into the air. That uniform doesn't look so neat and clean now, does it motherfucker?
"Bang," I say.
"Well?" PFC Jerry Willis says, glancing over at me from the opposite corner of the tower.
"One clean shot, right down the middle. The fucker never knew what hit him."
Willis gazes through the heat waves towards the orderly room. "How many times are you going to kill him?"
"As many times as it takes. The asshole doesn't have enough sense to stay dead." I blow an imaginary puff of smoke from the barrel of the M16.
"You've been shooting him every day for two weeks. Next time, let me have a crack at him," Willis says. "I shot expert with the M16. I'll bet I can pop out both his eyes before he hits the ground."
Bragg, oblivious to the activities in the tower, finishes his noon march and disappears back into the hooch. I turn and watch the traffic going by on the highway in front of the guard tower. A few Lambretta scooter-trucks buzz past. They're either packed with ratty-looking firewood or jammed with Vietnamese on their way to and from Saigon. An occasional MP jeep with a rat-patrol machine gun and whip antenna zips by, pretending to be in a big hurry to get someplace. Another day in the RVN.
"Lee Harvey Oswald," Willis says after a pause. "Could Oswald have made that kind of a shot? I don't think so, not even from a sandbagged guard tower with a target that wasn't moving."
"Bragg was moving," I say. It's a weak protest.
"Not in a car going 20 miles an hour. Downhill. Away from you," Willis says. "Obviously Oswald didn't do it." Willis is constantly spouting off with one conspiracy theory or another. Today it's the JFK Assassination.
"Damn it Willis—"
"Farnsworth!" A voice floats up from the bottom of the ladder. "Hey! Farnsworth!"
I lean over the opening in the sandbagged rear wall of the guard tower and look down the ladder at the hulking shape and undersized head of Private First Class Virgil "Mongo" Lloyd. He looks like Baby Huey from the comic books, with a little bit of Bluto from the Popeye cartoons mixed in. He's left his hat somewhere and the sun highlights the tiny blond stubble that covers his pinhead skull. He stares up the ladder into the sun, shielding his eyes from the glare with one hand.
"It's okay, Virgil, you don't have to salute," I say.
Mongo drops his hand quickly, screws up his eyes into a squint, and then raises it again to block the sun. I snap a salute back at him and he starts a gurgling hur-hur-hur laugh that shakes his whole body.
"What's up, Virgil?" I say.
"Sergeant Bragg says you're still on his shit list," Mongo says in his slow, deliberate monotone. "Sergeant Bragg says you'll know what that means. Does that mean you hafta burn shit again? Does it?"
"God damn it, Willis! The fucker's done it again!" I throw my helmet into the corner. It spins in slow circles, clipping the stacked sandbags slightly with each turn.
"Yeah, that's a big surprise. This the, what, tenth day in a row? Have fun, Smith. I'll hold down the fort." Willis is from Boston and it sounds like he's saying he'll hold down the foot. He calls everybody Smith. Everybody except Bragg. He calls him a "rat-faced git".
I climb down the ladder. When I hit the bottom and turn around, I feel small standing next to Mongo. He's like a huge tree stump. If the sun wasn't directly overhead, I could stand in his shade.
Spec 4 Timothy Black comes waddling up from the direction of the motor pool. He's my replacement in the orderly room, a fat little suckass with a skin problem so bad that his face looks like it caught on fire and he tried to put it out with a handful of ice picks. I call him Little Orphan Acne.
"Look here, Virgil," I say. "It's Timmy the Weasel. It's Suckass Black, company jerkoff. Hey, Timmy, I hear Lassie calling you. Isn't it time for you to go and choke the chicken?"
"You're just jealous, Farnsworth," Black says. Whenever he talks to me, he has a permanent sneer in his voice. "I'm the company clerk now and you're not. You got to go burn shit, Farnsworth."
"I told him that already," Mongo says defensively. "Didn't I, Farnsworth? Didn't I?"
"Mongo," Black says, sounding just like the prick that he is. "Sergeant Bragg says you're so fucking stupid that you probably forgot it in the time it took you to walk over here. Sergeant Bragg says you couldn't pour piss out of a boot with the instructions written on the heel. Sergeant Bragg says—"
"Jesus Christ, shut the fuck up, you little weasel!" I yell. I step up close and glare into his face. He leans back and I lean into him. I'm so close I can see the sweat pooling in the acne pits on his cheeks. "Get your fat ass back into that hooch, Black. I told you to leave Virgil alone. You finished your errand-boy job, so you can get the fuck outta here."
Black flinches slightly and takes a step or two back. He glances towards the orderly room hooch. I know Bragg is lurking in there, invisible behind the dark insect screen.
"Sergeant Bragg is watching you, Farnsworth, so you'd best not threaten me!"
"You think I give a rat's ass? What's he gonna do, draft me and send me to Vietnam? Send me on convoy? Put me on permanent guard duty? Make me burn shit? Get the fuck outta my face, you slab-sided pit-faced little brown-noser!"
Black starts to respond but thinks better of it. He takes off toward the orderly room at a fast walk.
Mongo watches him go. "Maybe you shouldn't oughta done that, Farnsworth. I think he can make it pretty rough on us."
"That little fucker? Fuck 'im. Forget it, Virgil. I gotta go burn some shit."
The two latrines, a shack for the enlisted men and a nicer one for officers, are small huts with wooden slats for walls. They sit beyond the ends of two rows of sleeping hooches in an open area near the motor pool. The shit collects in 55-gallon drums cut in half. Every three days someone has to drag these out from the hatches in the rear of the latrines and set fire to the human waste collected in them. This particular chore is performed with a stick with a hook on the end of it, so you can stick into a metal loop on the outside of the drum and pull the whole thing out onto the dirt. Naturally, this implement is called a shit hook.
Shit won't burn on its own, so you have to douse it with diesel before you set fire to it. Then you have to stir it up, pour in more diesel, stir some more, etc. It can go on for most of an hour, and at the end you end up smelling like you've spent R&R in a sewer. It's the worst duty in the entire army. Up the road at Long Binh they pay the locals to do it. Here they make some fucker that they're pissed off at do it. Lately that's been me.
I let Mongo go to the maintenance shed for the can of diesel and I go to my hooch for some newspaper and a cloth to tie around my face. After the hour or so that it takes to burn shit, you end up with a coating of greasy shit smoke on your skin, but I want to keep it out of my nose and mouth as much as I can.
I fuck around on my way to my hooch, and it takes me a while to scrounge up a raggedy tee shirt for a mask and an old Stars and Stripes to use as a torch. By the time I get to the shitters, Mongo has the rear hatches lifted up and latched and the drums are lined up in the dirt behind the shacks. He's standing there with a big dumb grin on his face.
"Farnsworth! Farnsworth!" he says, excited as a little kid. "I pulled them all out and poured the diesel in them myself! They're all ready to go!"
I try to look official and survey the row of drums. "Good job, Virgil. You'll get to be a Spec 4 yet."
"Can I light 'em, Farnsworth? Can I?"
"Well…okay, Virgil," I say. I hand him the rolled-up newspaper and my Zippo. "But god damn it, be careful." I fumble with the rag, trying to tie it around my face.
He fidgets around with it for a while and finally gets a rudimentary torch flickering at the curly ends of the newspaper. He edges toward the row of barrels, holding the torch out in front of him. He looks kind of like the Statue of Liberty with a hangover.
Something has been nagging at me since I got to the shitters, and it suddenly dawns on me what it is. There's a different smell in the air.
"Virgil, wait!" I shout, but it's too late. There is a loud Foom! that knocks the breath out of me. Flames shoot up twenty feet into the air. Mongo screams and jumps back, but he loses his balance and falls on his butt in the dirt. The torch flips away from him towards the second barrel and it explodes. My chest compresses and I fight for breath.
"Virgil!" I yell when I manage to get my wind back. "Get back!"
A small breeze comes up out of nowhere. It sucks the fire into the side of the officer's latrine. The wooden slats start to smolder and then the whole shack immediately bursts into flames.
"Oh shit!" I yell. "Get back, Virgil!" He scrambles slowly to his feet. Black greasy smoke billows into the air. The heat sears my skin.
With one hand I grab the five-gallon jerry can that has "diesel" painted on the side and with the other I grab Mongo's sleeve and drag both of them away from the fire. My face feels scorched and Mongo is missing his eyebrows.
I open the screw-top on the diesel can and sniff the opening. "Jesus, it's fucking gasoline, Virgil."
I sniff it again. It smells like there's something else in the can, more than just plain gasoline.
"What's going on here?" I say, more to myself than to Mongo.
"I don't know," Mongo says, his voice mournful. "It's the same can you always use." Without his eyebrows, his blank blue eyes look like they're popping out of his face.
Already a bunch of the guys have run to the scene from all over the compound. Some of them cheer when they see the officer's latrine in flames.
Black gets there a few steps ahead of Bragg. His eyes are bright with anticipation.
"Oh, man, you've done it now," he says, rubbing his hands together. "You are fucked!"
"Black!" I whirl to face him. "You little fucker, you did this, didn't you? You were in the motor pool!"
Bragg shoulders Black out of the way. "Farnsworth and Mongo, the two biggest fuckups in the army," he says. "Farnsworth, I wanna see you in the orderly room at 1500 hours, and bring Baby Huey here with you." There is a long silence while Mongo shuffles uncomfortably from foot to foot and I stare into Bragg's face until he looks away.
He glares at Mongo, who manages to find the dirt in front of his scuffed jungle boots extremely interesting. "Orderly room! 1500 hours!" he snaps.
"Okay, Sergeant Bragg," Mongo mumbles. Bragg half turns to leave.
"Yes, First Sergeant," I say. I try to sound chipper. "Will there be anything else, First Sergeant?"
Bragg whips back towards me, his eyes beady.
"I have fuckin' had it with you, Farnsworth!" he hisses. "And the lieutenant is gonna be highly pissed when he finds out you burnt down his latrine. You'll be a private by dark. Black, have Article 15s typed up on these two fuckups by 1430!"
"Yes, Sergeant Bragg." Black can hardly contain himself. He sounds way too eager.
"The rest of you men!" Bragg shouts. "Get your sorry asses back to duty. We're tryin' to fight a god damn war here!" The crowd starts to break up. "Black, pull down the Enlisted sign off that shitter and make one that says Officers."
"Why don't you make Farnsworth do it?" Black's voice sounds whiney. "He's the one who burnt it down."
"Because I want it done right. I know you'll handle it and he'll fuck it up."
This satisfies the little fucker. He's beaming and bubbling as he trots off at Bragg's heels. They head towards the orderly room.
Willis appears at my elbow. "Now you've done it, Smith. He's really pissed this time."
"Screw him. What are you doing out of the tower? You forget your General Orders, troop?"
"Chow relief. Let's go eat. I told 'em you wouldn't be back until you built a new shitter."
"C'mon, Virgil," I say, and grab his sleeve. He moans incoherently and follows us to the mess hall at the rear of the compound. Behind us the officer's latrine is now a smoldering pile of charred sticks and ash. The stench of burning shit lingers in the air. My face feels like it's been sanded raw.
In the mess hall Mongo stares into his tray of food, picking at it idly with the bent tines of his fork. Out of the bright sun his face doesn't look too bad. Kind of like he got a sunburn that somehow took out his eyebrows, and I don't think I want to know what mine looks like.
Men walk by our table and pitch crap on us. "Way to go, guys. Now we have to shit in a slit trench." But no one is really angry with us. Mostly they think it's funny, but Mongo looks like he wants to hide.
"I think we're in big trouble," he says. "Big trouble."
"Virgil," I say. "Lighten up. It's not the end of the world. Bragg can't give us Article 15s on his own, and I know for a fact that the lieutenant is at TC Hill for the whole day. No way is he going to be back by three o'clock. When he finishes up at battalion, he and Firestone will head for the officer's club to down a few cool ones. When he gets back here this evening, he's not going to want to fuck with this shit. So there you go, no Article 15s for us."
Mongo shakes his head slowly. "Big trouble," he says.
"Virgil, forget about it. You go home in what, six days?"
"Yeah?" he says. He sounds a little hopeful.
"Well guess what. Timmy Fucking Black would take longer than that to type up a god damn Article 15. You're not in trouble, okay?"
"Uh… okay," he says, but he still doesn't sound convinced.
There's a silence as we stuff in the mystery meat. Whatever it is, it's stringy and tastes funny. Typical mess hall food.
After a while, Willis says, "Smith, I really do think the sonofabitch is trying to kill you."
"Really," I say, sarcastically.
"No, really. I saw Black coming from the maintenance shed just as you were leaving the tower. You know Bragg sent him there to sabotage the diesel can. He was hoping you'd blow yourself up. It didn't work this time, but he'll keep trying."
"Yeah, and Bragg kidnapped the Lindbergh baby, disappeared Judge Crater, and shot JFK in his spare time. If this is another one of your half-baked paranoid conspiracy theories, I don't want to hear it."
"You know that even paranoids can have enemies," he says darkly.
"Black probably did it as some sort of half-assed practical joke."
"You know Black won't take a shit without Bragg telling him to. No, it's Bragg, he's behind the whole thing. That's why he had Mongo instead of Gordon come and tell you to burn shit, to get him out of the maintenance shed so he wouldn't see Black fucking with the can. There had to be more than gasoline in it. Things blew up way too good for it to be just gas."
"Shit, I don't know, maybe. It did smell funny, like there was something else in it. You went to M.I.T., you tell me. What could it have been?"
"Toluene, naphthalene, phosphine," he says. "Phenol, ammonium nitrate, hypochlorites, even nitroglycerin. There's a million kinds of explosives, corrosives, solvents, it could be anything. The list is endless. The army apparently has as its only purpose blowing up Vietnam completely, and it brought over enough explosives to do it about a hundred times over." He pokes at his food for a bit. "You know, Bragg really is out to get you."
"Okay, what if you're right? What if Bragg is trying to kill me? Then what? I go tell the CO? Yeah, that'll go a long ways. He's still pissed off at me over Blomberg, and he wouldn't do anything to Bragg anyway, him and that ‘NCOs are the backbone of the army' shit. All I can do is try to dodge the fuckers for the next seven months."
"Seven months!" he hoots. "Short!"
"Eat me, asshole. This is just another chapter in The Adventures of Fuckup Farnsworth." I nudge Mongo who is playing with his red rubber jello. "Virgil, Willis and I have to get back to the tower. See you at the orderly room at three, and god damn it, stop worrying about it."
* * *
At three o'clock I intercept Mongo on his way from the maintenance shop to the orderly room and delay him for five minutes or so. We enter the hooch fashionably late. Black glares at us. He's shuffling through a stack of 3 by 5 personnel cards and putting them into several piles on his desk.
"Now there's a man who's definitely overworked and underpaid, Virgil," I say jovially. "Hey, Timmy, need some help there? I'm a school-trained company clerk, gung-ho and rarin' to go!"
"Fuck off, Farnsworth," Black mutters.
"It's Fuckup Farnsworth," I tell him. "Get the name right."
"I don't need any help from you."
"Well, you sure need some from somebody. Have you tried to see the chaplain?"
Bragg's voice comes through the open door to his office. "Black!"
"Yes, Sergeant Bragg?"
"I told you to keep that god damned screen door closed. You don't know what's going to crawl in!" There are the sounds of a scraping chair and shuffling feet, and Bragg swaggers into the orderly room.
"Afternoon, First Sergeant," I say. I try to sound amiable.
Bragg steps in front of me and locks eyes with me. We're on his turf now and he thinks he has the advantage. He is wrong.
"Farnsworth and Mongo, tomorrow you two're gonna be buildin' this company a new shitter," he says. He shakes his head. "Y'all are a couple a sorry motherfuckers, ain'tcha?"
"Yes, First Sergeant," I say. "And how is your mother?"
His eyes narrow to slits, his lips purse, and his entire face squints up into a point. It's like he slept with his face in a funnel. This is what Willis means when he calls him a rat-faced git.
"You are one smart-assed punk, aren't you," he says, but it's not really a question.
"If you say so, First Sergeant. Is Lieutenant Johnson in?"
"You been sittin' on your lazy ass in that tower all day, Farnsworth, so you know he ain't here. He's still at TC Hill."
"Yes, Sergeant Bragg." I'm trying to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. Bragg glares at me even harder, then jerks around to face Mongo.
"And you, you fuckin' mongoloid! You keep hanging out with this sorry motherfucker and you're going to be in as much shit as he is!"
"But First Sergeant—"
"You shut the fuck up, Private Mongo Fuckin' Lloyd! I didn't tell you to talk! And what the hell were you even doin' there? You were spose to tell Farnsworth he had to burn shit. Nobody said nothin' about you burnin' shit."
Mongo is miserable. He moans slightly and stares down at the toes of his jungle boots, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. The plywood floor creaks under him.
Bragg turns his attention back to me. "I had you pegged for a god damn troublemaker your first day here, Farnsworth," he says. "You had it made in the shade when Pickett was the First Sergeant, you and that runaway nigger pal of yours, that fuckin' Blomberg. But I been keepin' my eye on you and now I'm gonna git your ass but good, Mister."
Black has maneuvered himself around behind Bragg and is smirking at me. I give him an I'll-get-you-later-fucker look and he looks away.
"Look at me when I talk to you, troop!" Bragg shouts. I try to stifle a grin. This crap didn't work on me in basic training and it sure as shit won't work on me now.
"Private Lloyd, get your ass outta my orderly room!" Bragg says and jerks his head toward the screened door. Mongo looks at me, then back at Bragg, and then at Black, who turns away. Finally he lumbers towards the door, but he's still not sure what's happened.
"If you're going to try to give me an Article 15, let's get it over with," I say to Bragg. "Otherwise I got a guard tower to go to. The NVA could be overrunning this place even as we speak and I wouldn't be there to protect you."
I pause for effect. "Besides, I think it'll be pretty interesting when the CO finds out that you sent Black over to put some kind of explosives in the diesel can. And it'll be even more interesting when I tell him what I know about the missing M16s. So let Timmy type up your god damn Article 15 and I'll just wait here until Lieutenant Johnson gets back."
Bragg doesn't say anything for a long moment. I can see the muscles in his temples working hard. Finally he breaks the silence.
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" I can almost hear his teeth grinding. "You think I'm as stupid as Mongo? No, I'm gonna get you in my own way, and when I do, you won't like it. You won't be wearin' that shit-eatin' grin of yours when I do."
Mongo finally leaves the orderly room. I hear the screen door slam shut behind him.
"Yes, First Sergeant Bragg," I say. I'm trying not to wear the shit-eating grin, I really am, but I don't think I'm being very successful. "Will that be all?"
"Yes! Now get the fuck outta my orderly room!" Bragg slams his fist down on Black's desk. Note cards fly all over the place. It's like a game of 52-Pickup, and Black's neat piles are ruined.
Mongo is waiting for me in the dusty heat in front of the hooch. I tap him lightly on the shoulder. "What'd I tell ya," I say.
"I don't like him," Mongo says. "I don't like him at all. I'm scared of him. He said he was gonna get you. Is he really gonna try to kill you? Like Jerry said?"
"Shit, Virgil, you know what Willis is like. He's always talking that paranoid conspiracy shit. Bragg's not going to try to kill me. And you don't have to like him, and you sure as hell don't have to be scared of the fucker. He's not going to do anything to me, and he can't do anything to you. Not really. You go home in six days. And Lieutenant Johnson likes you, so he's not going to do anything to you. That's why Bragg kicked you out of there. Forget about it. Go on back to the shop, Virgil. We're not in trouble any more."
"He said he was going to get you," he says. He looks furtively back toward the dark screens over the window openings in the hooch wall.
"He's your typical Texas windbag, Virgil. He ain't gonna do shit. For Chrissake, stop worrying!"
"I think he meant it."
"Yeah, so maybe he meant it, but so what? I don't give a shit. What can he do? Nothing. I'll see you later." I practically have to shove him off in the direction of the maintenance shed and then I head back towards the tower. Willis and I have a little less than three hours left on guard duty and then we can head for the club and start work on tomorrow's hangovers.
* * *
The next day everything has changed. No one has had any sleep, there's been incoming fire and we've been on alert most of the night.
Bragg is dead, from an M16 bullet fired at close range through the back of
his head that's splattered brains out his eye socket.
And, thanks to Black, I'm Suspect Number One.
Lieutenant Johnson is gone to TC Hill to make a report to the colonel,
and I'm in his office being interrogated by two CID investigators,
Mister Pemberling and Mister Sotero.
Cisco and Pancho. Mutt and Jeff.
They're trying to pull the old good cop/bad cop routine on me. It isn't working.
They talk shit like means, motive and opportunity, general court martial, Leavenworth
Disciplinary Barracks, death penalty, firing squad.
I put up with it as long as it stays interesting, but then they start repeating themselves.
"You guys watch too much television," I say finally. "Go ahead and charge me if you think you can
make it stick. I'm not saying anything until I see a JAG attorney."