Ho on Ice

Half a klik east down a path that was eversafe and never mined, between rock and poisoned foliage, leaned a structure special to the men of Firebase Mordant: Uncle Ho’s Chicken Shak or Hooch Hootch or Buzz Base, the name a place-indicator only, like coordinates, for there was no sign of it except itself. Unlike other huts exactly like it, bare tin and wooden raiments for prostitutes or moneychangers, no one feared that if there were a fight or nearby mortaring the shak would collapse and crush its clients beneath the materials of which it was made: corrugated tin, aluminum sheeting, dismantled packing crates, ammo boxes, previously owned and ruined CONEXes, shell casings, fenders, hubcaps, and dogtags, inlaid with stained glass window artistry and sealed with shreds of uniforms (Army, Marines, Air Force and ARVN), tarpaulin, bubblepaper, requisition orders, reconnaissance reports, computer readouts, cancelled checks, aerial and satellite photos. Its architect, presumably Ho, clearly planned to be around for some time. Nothing about the Shak was impermanent yet it was built of impermanent things, an encomforted non-killing zone, though no one could explain why. The whorehouse 20 feet away had been burned twice, fragged, the scene of murder, rape, and incest and that in the month before Willy arrived.

Uncle Ho himself inspired security and calm among his customers. He was short and slight — well, all those people are — had a high forehead with receded hair, the look of a scholar, a Confucian mustache and wispy beard, a taut highcheekboned face and eyes dramatic and wise that said walk on in, sit right down, baby let your mind roll on. He seemed in some way familiar to the servicemen but they could never pin it down. He reminded Willy of his Uncle Dunk. To others he recalled their uncles, fathers, brothers, sons, sometimes mothers they never had. Uncle Ho, the soldiers’ friend.

Ho spoke no English except Johnny Walker Red, which was the only commodity he sold, Thank you, and Have a pleasant and productive year in our beautiful country. The bottles of JWR lined side by side on the shelf behind the counter were the real thing, attested to by experts in the field, and there was an unending supply. But the most amazing, magical, wondrous element of Uncle Ho’s Buzz Base was the ice. He had ice. He chipped ice from a block directly into your glass using an alpenstock, and when the ice block was consumed or on a slow day melted, Uncle stomped three times on the floor, a trap door opened, and a young man he called cháu trai (nephew) appeared with another fresh block of ice. Men made bets on the source (underground glacier, Viet Cong refrigeration plant, wholly owned Vietnamese subsidiary of Frigidaire and so on), swore they would come back at night and break in to find out, but the truth was no one wanted to mess with the phenomenon. If the ice was produced by ancient Oriental dark arts, so be it, it was ice. After they won the war, they’d find out. No one snooped or burgled. He who desecrated Ho’s property would have found that life at Firebase Mordant wasn’t hell after all; there was a hell deeper and more dense, the kind bored terrified men with access to the cutting edge of murder can devise.

Willy sat on a crate decorated with clasped hands of friendship near a group of warrior-philosophers, sucked on an icecube as big as the Ritz.

— The problem, said the Marine, conundrum if you will, is how to brain them without

— What?

— Without, listen to me, benefitting them in the long run.

— How does bashing?

— He’s talking basic cost effectiveness, said the one in black. A Navy Seal.

— I learned this, a sudden realization, on the truck to the dump.

— They come up begging.

— Whining, screaming, pleading, in that oo-oo oo-oo.

— Inflected language.

— Infected way of speaking. So you want to brain them.

— The kids are worse, said the helicopter pilot, who spoke into a microphone at his lips.

— Worst. And the skinnier, the more screechy the voice.

— Emaciated vocal cords.

— The point is. My realization was. I picked up a C-rat box and chunked it at his head, coldcocked him.

— There it is.

— His little brother picks up the carton. Long past its half-life but edible. What have I done?

— Knocked the brat upside the head.

— Fed his family for a week, asshole. Not cost effective. He gains, they gain, more than I gain.

— But how do you measure?

— There it is. How do you measure?

— Brain em, said the pilot, with something they can’t use.

— Easier said. What. Tell me what.

— I conked one once with a dud hangrenade, scared shit out of him.

— That’s what I’m talking. They got underground repair shops. Shit, your dud came back live.

— Hubcaps. Killer frisbee.

— Might as well throw money. Make anything with anything, them.

Willy unfolded the cocktail napkin provided by Ho, which was printed on the inside. Ground Forces, it read. Then, MACV indicated in 18 March, and in Appendix B to JCSM 218-67, that his minimum essential [blurred by wet ring of condensation from his glass] 2 1/3 division for I CTZ. He now proposes that 1 1/3 divisions to [blurred] I CTZ to supplement 2 brigades moved from III CTZ.

Not your normal joke bar napkin. He tried without success to fold it back into its former pentagonal shape.


Concept Man

On his third visit, Willie made a fool of himself by walking up to the bar (a tank track draped over ammo boxes) and asking Uncle Ho for Johnnie Walker Red. Two men in the Shak did not spit out their drinks laughing at this logico-linguistic misstep: Uncle Ho, who suffered fools gladly — and a civilian-type person (not a civilian or a soldier in civvies but a militarized civilian) with four empty Trader Vics glasses on his table (a wooden cable roller) who alternatingly toyed with the table decoration (an origami dove folded new each day) and scribbled on the napkins.

Willy took a chair by the door, inhaled the smoke of scotch, of malt, the healing herb, sucked on an ice cube, thought of close to nothing, until the civilian-type asked him

“Do you know who you are?”

That’s one of those questions. The kind Rosecrucians print in their ads and religious cultists ask to get your attention. The correct answer is “fuck off,” because if you give your real name, they say No, that’s wrong. You’re a child of God. Or No, your name is Spirit. Then you’re one down cause you’ve offered the earthbound name your turkey parents gave you and they the questioners are boosted to a higher spiritual plane and you’re an idiot who needs to be astrally educated. So Willy cocked his head to indicate he heard the question, but didn’t answer, to show he wasn’t to be fooled with by anyone in the I-know-your-spiritual-identity-better-than-you-do racket. Furthermore and worse, their response might be Yer a famus negro singer har har and he was fed up with that.

“It would be an honor for me to buy you a drink,” said the stranger, which was another statement entirely. As Willy rose to accept, Uncle Ho materialized with two fresh glasses of Johnnie Walker Red, as if it had been his idea.

“Why an honor?” Willy asked, in a tone he hoped communicated This isn’t a fag-type come-on, is it? cause I’m not one.

“Why a duck?” said the man, “Pull up a crate. I’m Eldridge Cleaver,” which was more original than the Yeah and I’m Willy Mays or whatever the only Negro name the jokester’s spavined brain could come up with was, and further intrigued Willy because it meant the man knew who he was, refrained from signalling it out front, connoted a certain conspiratoriality, and anyway the free drink called to him, cracking its ice cubes along molecular fault lines. Molecules put him in mind of Dwight, who showed up at the firebase a week after Willy arrived, camped outside his bunk, “I issed you,” his only explanation.

“Chuck Morris,” said the man and held out his hand which was hard but intellectual. “Your concept and I go way back.”

“Ah yeah,” said Willy. Consep, condem, comex. The amber waves of malt assuaged him.

“Never thought I’d meet you,” said Chuck. “In the flesh.”

“Goes double for me.”

“It is not given to every man to be a concept.”

“Nope,” said Willy, noting that free scotch always tastes better. Chuck handed him a business card.

Concept Interpretation Agency,” Willy read. “That’s a new one.”

“What we do. Interpret concepts, invent them, rearrange them, apply them, but we rarely meet them, which is why I’m going to buy you another drink,” but Uncle Ho was already at their elbows with two fresh ones.

Chuck raised his glass. “Here’s to Wilson Pickett, the Crossover Man.”

“Uh huh.” Willy held up his glass but did not move it toward Chuck’s, making the toast all Chuck’s and none of his own, avoiding culpability in whatever he was about.

“You’re a moment in history, kid. The one we’ve been waiting for. Prosit.”

“Thanks for the drink.” Willy stood. He’d never heard of a war in which people were concepts or moments. He had to get back to the war he was in. Chuck, fucking with his brain, was an enemy agent, a drunk fool, or a psycho. Those were concepts Willy could interpret.

Chuck saluted. Not the kissoff salute thing with two fingers but a real one.

“See ya around, C.M.,” he said.