Like Church Dust
by Bob Konrardy
November 1965. We’re dug in with the 7th Cavalry in the Ia Drang Valley and surrounded by North Vietnamese Regulars – over 2,00 of them against less that 400 of us. Instead of replicating the Little Big Horn, however, the last two days and nights the enemy has toyed with us, trying various battle formations and combat tactics to see how our choppers react and how we react. We have become their live fire training exercise.
Dawn slowly appears, burning fog from the ankle high elephant grass and once again exposing enemy bodies scattered in front of our foxholes. There’s a serene lull that I’m starting to enjoy in this cat and mouse struggle when my radio operator taps my shoulder with the radio receiver.
“Burnt Rings 6. Over.”
“Yes, Sir. I understand. Right away, Sir. Burnt Rings 6, out.”
“Sergeant Mathis, have the platoon sergeant grab First and Third Squads and follow me. We’re searching those bodies for intelligence information before their buddies hit us again. Headquarters is going nuts.”
I look for a body somewhere in the open and keep my M-16 at the ready. The stench churns my stomach and the glassy stares, bloated stomachs, and open mouths make me skittish. I purposely look for a body face down to avoid his eyes.
I find my target halfway up the backside of one of the termite mounds. Anxious to finish my search, I swat at the flies. They swarm my sweaty hands and bug the hell out of me. I push the buzzing past my consciousness and unbuckle the Viet Cong’s backpack straps.
Compliantly I invade his privacy and dig into the pack to find an entrenching tool, a sock of rice, a china plate, a tin cup, a floppy hat, and a leather case. Personal treasures, but no intelligence information. Even though it’s the enemy, I say to him, “I’m sorry,” and then quickly add, “But I’m glad it’s not me.”
Quickly replacing sympathy with anger, I force my military mind to regain control, grab a huge clump of his black, shiny hair and jerk the body from the mound. But I jerk too hard, forgetting that the hot, humid jungle intensifies decomposition
My fury pulls clumps of hair from his head that are charged with static electricity. They explode into my personal space, flutter to my uniform, plaster my cheeks and cling to my eyelashes. All I see is hair, swirling hair. The heat from the jungle floor mushrooms this cloud of hair that now cloaks my upper body, suffocating all normalcy. Frantically I wave my arm to clear the air, to clear my uniform, to clear my face. The more I panic, the more the strands of hair electrify and gag me.
I drop my M-16 and claw the air with both hands, but the static hair encircles me even more. I try to spit out the hairs stuck to my lips, but can’t exhale. My throat tightens, my stomach turns inside out. My skin aches, my head pounds, my eyes no longer focus. My arms flop to my side and I get dizzy.
Suddenly, peacefully, my mind collapses. Vietnam ceases to exist. I’m no longer in combat. I’m young, and an altar boy in our church back home. Then I spot the beam of light that used to stream through the stained glass window and illuminate the church dust. A bright, cylindrical beam of swirling church dust available only a few hours each day as the sun hit the church window just right.
Reaching out I flick my fingers and try to make the dust swirl, like I have many times before. I flick and flick, yet the dust doesn’t cooperate. It doesn’t swirl and disappear into the sacristy shadows. It attacks my hand and adheres to the sweat. Staring at my hand I wonder why the dust is acting so strangely.
Suddenly my mind snaps back. I’m not in church. I’m not an altar boy. I’m a soldier trapped in a cylinder of swirling static hair in a Vietnam jungle. My chest tightens and I can’t breathe. Intense fear paralyzes my entire body. I can’t fight back. My mind races at warp speed attempting to obliterate all conscious thought to temporarily keep me sane as my physical body shuts down.
Inexplicably serenity oozes through my body. Once again the hair transforms back into church dust. Once again I’m an altar boy mesmerized by the swirling church dust trapped in the beam of stained glass light. I’m in church, and safe. Collapsing to my knees, I look to the heavens. I try to utter a prayer, but can’t speak. Why does no one scoop me into their secure arms? No voice booms out, “Bob, get up. You’re safe. You’re OK. You’re going home.”
The ground hurts my knees and injects spurts of reality back in my veins. I look down and see grass, not the red carpeting in our church. Why am I kneeling then? Why can’t I get up? What is that ungodly smell? Where am I?
“Lieutenant, is everything OK?”
My radio operator.
I’m a platoon leader, not an altar boy. I’m in combat.
Grabbing my M-16, I jump to my feet, walk past the termite mound, and turn around. There is no church, merely a cluttered battlefield. There are no candles, simply bamboo thickets. But there is hair, static strands of hair from that enemy body. Deliberately and slowly I raise my M-16, take aim, empty the magazine, reload, and empty the magazine again. Metal splatters the lifeless body as he consumes my insanity, round by round.
Frantically I dart through some bamboo to get rid of the hair still clinging to my upper body. The thickets scour my arms and face, replacing hair with pain. The green foliage absorbs the static and the hair dissipates into the innocent jungle growth. In a few seconds I’m physically free.
I regain my composure, join my platoon in silence, and put on my leadership face. I’m once again in charge – of them and me. But especially me. Another wall comes up and another horror of Vietnam is buried deep in my memory.
I reach for the radio to let the company commander know the search is over.
It’s many, many years before I can eventually tolerate the sight and feel of hair. Yet, once in a while, I accidentally touch someone’s hair, or I see bits of floating hair from our cat walking through the morning sun shining in the window, and memories that I tried to bury 49 years ago inflict panic in my entire psyche. I can’t control the horror. I can’t placate the horrendous intensity. It hasn’t gone away and lurks in the recesses of my Vietnam walls. Ready to invade my space. Ready to engulf and overcome me. Ready to knock me to my knees – like church dust.
Robert J. Konrardy entered the US Army on 5 June 1964, a few days after college graduation. After basic training, AIT, Infantry OCS, and Ranger School, he joined the 1st Cavalry (Airmobile) Division as an Infantry Platoon Leader. His company was airlifted the second day as reinforcements into the November 1965 Ia Drang Valley battle, where he was seriously injured and sent home. He currently is a member of the Vet Center Writing Group in Moline, Illinois, concentrating on stories for his memoir to his grandchildren.