by Tim Coover
There were forty-two men in the platoon, at least at that time, which meant forty-two different ways of coping. Truman Hill played the harmonica, until the day Jed Abernathy snapped, and chucked it in the Mekong. Lurch, our medic, would recite to himself all the bones in the human body, in an endless, whispered mantra, whenever things got hot. Rob Drake had his stickers. Abernathy had his butterflies.
It was April when Jed Abernathy started killing butterflies. The first time, we heard gunfire at dusk and everyone went down in the dirt, thinking it was an ambush. Turned out it was Abernathy, taking potshots at the moths, laughing like a hyena as he turned those luminous lacy wings into tattered curtains.
Well, Lieutenant French put a stop to that p.d.q., so Abernathy came up with a new way. He figured out the mosquito-repellent they issued us was flammable, so he’d rig traps for the moths with honey or Kool-Aid from our rations. When several Crayola-colored butterflies had gathered to feast, he’d spray the repellent in front of his lighter and then whoosh and they’d go up in flames. At dusk, he’d switch to a flashlight as the bait. We all eventually got used to the sight of pyrotechnic moths at sunset, trailing flames as they spiraled toward their doom, like-what’s-his name: the Greek kid from the myth.
“Hey, look,” he’d say. “It’s a fire-fly. Get it?”
If anyone objected, he was ready with a counter.
“You ever really looked at a butterfly, man? At their bodies? Man, a butterfly is just a worm with wings. A hobo in a fancy coat.”
And while nobody liked it, exactly, I think most of us understood the principle. The whole country—the creatures, the trees, the landscape— had risen up against us. We’d all sensed it by then. The terrible tropical diseases, the land mines, the shadows that turned into snipers then back again to shadows. The relentless damp, and the jungle’s quiet, constant eating noises, gave us the awful sensation we were marinating in some giant beast’s digestive juices.
One day in June, Rob Drake received a package from the States. He patted it anxiously, then gave a smile like the kid on Christmas who’s just gotten exactly what he knew he would. We didn’t find out what was in it, though, for several days.
But when Curtis Ford tossed his pack onto a land mine, and they were picking pieces of his own gear out of his legs, Rob Drake had sidled up, saying “Here, Curtis: for your troubles,” and slapped something small and white into his palm.
It was a sticker. Round and white, with red letters reading “I gave blood” above a cartoon of a winking crimson blood-drop.
Rob Drake, it transpired, had had his sister back home send him a giant pack of those little white stickers— sheets and sheets of them. God knows where the sister had found the damn things. Some blood bank somewhere, we supposed.
Drake began distributing these stickers to the walking wounded with all the glee of a morbid Santa Claus. Anytime anyone was shot, or hurt in any way, after Lurch was done with them, they could count on Rob Drake to drop by with a sticker. Sometimes, in the graver cases, the gag flirted perilously with bad taste, but most of us embraced this odd ritual. Many of us wore our stickers in preference to the medals. They got muddy and torn, but still we wore them: on armbands, on helmets, or like a talisman over the heart. Lieutenant French pointed out that we were wearing our own bullseyes; that they might as well say “shoot me,” but he made no move to ban them either.
The only one who really seemed to mind was Abernathy. “You try to pin one of those fuckers on me, Drake,” he’d say, “I better already be dead.”
But then that was the part that no one mentioned, though we all knew it. Since Drake had started handing out the stickers there had been a lot of injuries in the unit, a lot of close calls… but not a single death.
Then, in October, Jed Abernathy went down in a firefight outside An Khe.
At first, he was scary silent as Lurch worked on him, his face a weird pickled gray. And then he suddenly opened his eyes and shouted, through gritted teeth, “Drake! You listening, Drake? If you try to pin that goddamn sticker on me I’ll feed you your balls, you hear me?”
Later, though, waiting for the helicopter to take him up, he turned to the other man, and said “Hey, what gives? Don’t treat me like I’m fucking dying here!”
But Rob Drake shook his head, very solemn. “No, no, Jed, I couldn’t possibly. You said you didn’t want a sticker. I couldn’t possibly disrespect your wishes.”
And even though Abernathy was almost pleading in the end, worried now that he’d somehow jinxed himself, Drake held firm.
But when the chopper finally got there, and we hauled Abernathy up into the hold, a wave of laughter rippled through the company. There, on Jed Abernathy’s right butt-cheek, as if he’d sat on a cupcake and smeared the icing, was a little white mark. “I gave blood.” With that single drop of blood, crystalline and perfect, so different from the gushing, messy reality. And everyone remembered, at the same moment, how Curtis Ford had volunteered to help carry the wounded man and how, just before that, he’d been having a quiet word, off to the side, with Rob Drake.
And as Abernathy lifted up he was calling out. “What? What’s so fucking funny?” But no one would do anything but laugh. He kept calling to us—“Just tell me, fuckers” —until finally he was out of earshot. We waited till the chopper was a black speck against the yellow sky and then, still chuckling quietly, we turned and went back to the war.
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