I Never Heard the Mortar Call My Name
By RG Cantalupo
I never heard the mortar call my name.
No one did.
Oh, maybe you heard the round shooting out the tube a thousand meters away, the muffled poomf! and then a buddy yelling "Incoming!" but once it was in the air, you never heard a sound.
If they were going to miss you, arc high over your head or to the left or right beyond you, then you might hear them spinning, a soft whistle like wind through bamboo as they spiraled past you through the sky.
If they were close though—close enough to wound or kill you, so close they were going to hit the ground only a few feet or a few inches from where you stood—you didn't hear a thing, you only saw the orange and red burst of the explosion, and felt the burning shrapnel tearing through your flesh.
But on this night, I heard nothing—neither the firing, nor the explosion.
We'd just returned from three weeks of 'search and destroy' in the Ho Bo Woods, and Firebase Pershing, the battalion headquarters, was a welcome sight, the place where hot showers, clean socks, warm meals, and letters from The World were waiting, where no L-shaped ambushes or hot LZ's lay around a bend in the trail or on the shadowy side of a tree line.
No, with two rings of concertina wire around the perimeter, four batteries of artillery, and the battalion command post dug in under three layers of sandbags, the firebase was relatively safe.
Only the occasional sniper from nearby rubber trees gave us the rush of terror now and then.
Or the sound of incoming mortars.
I awoke in the silent dark, not even the geckos cackling their favorite "fuck-you, fuck you, fuck you"; not even the crickets strumming their broken-stringed guitars.
I awoke and I did not know whether someone put a palm on my shoulder and nudged me, or whether some larger mystery roused me in the dark.
I awoke and the night was silent and I was inside a bunker, inside the belly of a beast whose rippled, olive-drab sandbag skin and steel ribs conjured up the belly of a gecko in my daze.
I doused my face with musty canteen water, tied my boot laces and stepped halfway into the doorway trying to find my bearings in the dark—
To the west nothing, not even a line where the horizon ended.
To the east, a few distant flares from a firefight too far to hear.
I turned toward the north, and looked out into the night.
A red ember caught my eye.
"One of the new guys on guard, smoking?
Dumb. Dumb. Really dumb. Sniper-bait.
You don't smoke out in the open at night. Not if you want to survive. Not if you want to keep your head. You have to hide it, shield it, cup the red ember wholly in your hands."
I step out of the doorway.
One step. Two. Three.
Time compressed into a rapid heartbeat and the rush of adrenaline—toward the burning ember, deeper into the mouth of night.
From the moment I stepped through the dark doorway and into the open sky, I felt something was wrong.
Call it a premonition, a sixth sense, combat hyper-awareness, but as I stepped through the dark doorway into the naked sky, the hairs on the back of my neck spiked.
I felt like I was walking into the firing zone of an ambush just before the trip-wire snaps.
I couldn't pinpoint it exactly, but I felt it.
It was too quiet maybe.
Or it was the careless red glow of the FNG's cigarette pinpointing our position.
Or it was the ominous black of the new-mooned night.
Call it what you want, but for the few seconds while the mortar was spinning toward me through the dark, I could feel death's breath on my neck.
One step. Two. Three.
Midway into the fourth, the ember burst into a thousand sparks.
I am blown into the night sky, thrown like a rag doll, a hundred burning fires shooting into my body as I hurl.
When I hit the ground, I hear someone screaming, "Medic!!! Medic!!!"—realize the voice is mine.
After that, all I remember is the heat, the red-hot metal, and jagged fragments piercing my arms, legs, chest, and head.
I remember the warm liquid oozing over my body, the jungle fatigues soaking and sticking to my skin, the dull throbbing, and fear flailing like a caged bird in the locked chambers of my heart.
Still, I do not remember how I got there.
Not then, and not now.
I don't remember whether I walked out of the bunker because someone roused me for guard duty, or if I'd simply wandered outside because I'd heard someone call my name.
RG Cantalupo is a poet, playwright, filmmaker, novelist, and director. His work has been published widely in literary journals in the United States, England, and Australia. He served in the 25th Infantry Division as an RTO for an infantry company from 1968-69 and received three purple hearts and a Bronze Star with a combat V for Valor under fire. His books can be purchased through New World Publishers or through the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.