Friday, August 14, 2020

Limited vocabulary


Years later, my wife said, “I like your stories, but do you have to use that language?”

I said, “It’s the language we used.”

She said, “Nobody I know uses that language. It exhibits a limited vocabulary.”

“There were times,” I said, “when our vocabulary was very limited.”

It wasn’t worth explaining.

See, everything was time-oriented. Today counted, and nothing else. Yesterday didn’t matter, because it was gone. Tomorrow wasn’t yet here. Today counted -- right now counted, not the next minute, because you never knew what the next minute would bring. You didn’t think about the next minute; you thought about where your foot was now, where your eyes looked now. You thought about where you were, not in some abstract geo-political sense, but where you physically were. You certainly didn’t think about home. Home didn’t matter. Home was a place you remembered only when time came to stop walking. Home was a place not in reality. Home was a dream, a thing conjured in the night, but never during the day. Reality was where you were. Reality was here.

Limited vocabulary was part of the time-orientation. There was not time to explain things, so we shortened everything. Anything could be, and was, a motherfucker or a variation of the word. Motherfucking gooks. Motherfucking choppers’re late again. Motherfucking coffee was cold. Motherfucking Claymore took Charlie out, Man. Wizard’n his gun, Man, he sat down on that motherfucking trigger, wasted some gooks. I told the motherfucker, Man. I told him, watch where you put your feet. Motherfucker didn’t listen.

I can sum up the whole thing in two words -- Fuckin shit. The war and everything that went with it -- Fuckin shit.

The days that were hot and wet, or hot and dry; the people you associated with, lived with, slept with, drank beer with; the gooks you killed because they were trying to kill you; the bush, the hills, mud and rain; dust that curled up, over your boots and into your face when you walked; the food they gave you to eat; the rifle or machine gun or grenade launcher you carried and the ammunition for the weapon, and, god knows, if you had more strength, you would carry more ammunition. All of that -- Fuckin shit.

See how easy it is?

But even in that one phrase, there are different degrees, differing aspects of emphasis. Say you been humpin the bush two weeks, wearing the same clothes, the only thing you’ve changed is your socks, put on a dry pair, let the wet ones dry out, and the LT says resupply choppers are coming in, bringing new uniforms, but when the choppers get there, all they drop off is hot chow in mermite cans and more ammunition. You haul the mermite cans from the choppers, go back and pick up heavy wooden boxes of ammunition and hand grenades, there are no big cardboard boxes with clean uniforms, clean socks.

Fuck-in shit.

Somebody gets a letter from his girl back home, she says it isn’t the same anymore, he’s so far away, and what’s a girl supposed to do, stay home every Friday night and Saturday night? She’s still young, she has a life to live, and she knows he’ll understand. The guy who gets that letter, does one of two things: He goes off by himself, and maybe you hear him say, very quietly -- Fuckin shit; or he picks up his helmet and throws it as hard as he can, as far as he can – Fuck-in shit!

Limited vocabulary. Right.

Like how ham and lima beans got its other name. (Ham and lima beans is a C-ration “Main Course Meal” and comes in a green can, a can smaller than a No. 303 can, and nobody eats the stuff. Nobody. Tastes like shit, and there’s way too much salt.) How ham and lima beans got its other name, and you have to think Black on this one: A Brother comes in off some shit detail -- even in the bush somebody gets a shit detail. Choppers came in an hour before and dropped off three days’ worth of C-rations, but by the time the Brother gets to the cases, everything is shit-scattered, boxes not picked up and burned, the steel wire that wrapped the cases thrown everywhich way. It’s near dark, just enough light to see, if you bend over and look at the boxes remaining. The Brother does that, bends over and rummages through the boxes, reading the labels, going from broken case to broken case, picking up box after box, and he finds the same thing in every case, and he stands up and says, “Ham and motherfuckers. Nothin but ham and motherfuckers.” And then: “Fuckin shit.”