A Christmas Memory

Everything I ever really needed to know I learned in kindergarten so I dropped out of school halfway through first grade and left home to seek my fortune. I thought joining the Army would be a good way to see the world, but they said I was too young so I joined the Marines instead. Combat veterans say you never forget the first time you kill a man, but they’re wrong because I don’t remember a thing. Boy, was I drunk! From the stories I heard later though, it was really something else. A lot of the guys started calling me “Mad Dog” after that. Anyway, it was while I was in the Marines that I met the man who would change my life forever. When I got to boot camp I was soft, weak kneed, wet behind the ears– but he whipped me into shape. He taught me the true meaning of courage and the strength of the human will. He was the wise, caring, but tough-as-nails father I never had (my natural father died in childbirth). I am speaking, of course, about Truman Capote– the toughest son of a bitch to ever wear the uniform of the United States Marine Corps.

December 20, 1972. The Den-Ang Province. Truman and I were driving an old Vietnamese woman who’d caught a bit of shrapnel in her leg to an army hospital. That was always the hardest thing– seeing these innocent, confused people feeling like strangers in their own land; hurt, maimed, often killed by a conflict they never asked for and barely understood.

Then Truman made a couple of wrong turns and suddenly we found ourselves twenty five miles behind enemy lines and running out of gas. A whistling descended, screaming ever louder toward us, then the earth erupted just behind the jeep, rocking it with the massive force of the explosion as we careened out of control down the deeply cratered road. The old woman began screaming in terror. Just screaming and screaming and screaming and she wouldn’t stop screaming, so finally I– well, somehow she accidentally fell out of the jeep. Another tragic casualty of the senseless brutality of war.

The next mortar hit so close that the jeep flipped over! Luckily, neither Truman nor I were wearing our seat belts so we were thrown clear of the wreck. We hit the ground running and dove into a nearby foxhole. A fox bit Truman on the nose and then dashed away. “Oh, my nose!” Truman exclaimed.

“Hey, watch it,” I said, “you’re getting blood on my canteen!”

“Well, excuse me for getting bit on the nose by a fox!” he retorted.

He was right– I was being petty. This was no time to pick nits over bloody canteens.

His nose was still bleeding pretty bad so we decided we’d better put a tourniquet on it. Obviously, this was only a stop-gap measure meant to keep Truman alive until we could get him to a hospital where they would have the band-aids and hydrogen peroxide that spelled the difference between life and death.

“Go on without me,” Truman gasped.

“No, Truman, I can’t leave you here!”

“Dammit, I’m no good to you anymore! I’ll never make it, not with my nose like this! I’ll only slow you down! Run, you fool! Run like Hell and don’t look back!”

“Okay, take care,” I said. But then a shadow fell across us and we had bigger problems than Truman’s gimpy nose– it was a squad of Viet Cong with AK-47’s pointed at us. And they weren’t there to invite us to no tea party.

Hungry and covered in filth, Truman and I crouched in the tiger cage that had been our home since our capture. It was about three feet high, three feet wide and seven feet long, made of unbreakable cured bamboo. They had left us there completely alone in the middle of the jungle, with not so much as a glimpse of another human and not a scrap of food. Our only water was whatever we could catch in our open mouths during the brief afternoon rains. At night, the jungle became alive with the gleaming eyes of thousands of predators waiting to make their move.

After four days of this, I began to wonder if our captors were trying to play some kind of mind game on us. I mean, come on! Then on the fifth day they returned. On Christmas morning, we were dragged from our cage and forced to march, stumbling deliriously, deeper and deeper into the jungle to their camp. They threw us into a thatched hut, where their leader, Colonel Nyugen, sat behind a makeshift desk. Two men with bayonets stood guard at the door. The colonel stood and began to pace, occasionally glancing at us, his face a mask of barely concealed rage. Suddenly, he whirled on us and began screaming at Truman and gesticulating wildly.

“What the hell is he saying?” Truman asked, knowing I’d picked up some rudimentary Vietnamese in kindergarten.

“I’m not exactly sure,” I said, “because he’s speaking in a local dialect, but he seems to be upset about the portrayal of the Asian character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

“Hey, I just wrote the damn book! I didn’t have nothing to do with the movie! Mickey Rooney’s the one that should be tortured and shot, not me!”

“Hell, Truman, everybody wants torture and shoot Mickey Rooney! That won’t help us now.”

“Dammit to hell, this isn’t fair! I’m still relatively young! My greatest accomplishments still lie ahead of me!”

Of course, history would prove Truman wrong on that last point, but that’s neither here nor there– we had to find some way to escape. But how?

As Colonel Nyugen continued his tirade, I got an idea. It was crazy, but it just might work. “Get ready,” I whispered to Truman, then I pointed excitedly out the window.

“Oh my God,” I shouted in Vietnamese, “a UFO!”

Nyugen and the two guards rushed to the window to look, and Truman and I made our move! I leapt from my chair and brought my arm down sharply on the base of one guard’s neck. He collapsed to the floor unconscious, and I grabbed his rifle. Meanwhile, Truman ran out the door and disappeared into the jungle.

“Hey, Truman, wait,” I shouted, ” you were supposed to jump the other guard!”

But it was too late– he was long gone, and I was in big trouble. That’s when the bullets started flying. When the smoke finally cleared, I was the only one left standing. Then I fell down because I’d been shot a whole bunch.

Yes, Colonel Nyugen and his goons were dead, but it looked like they’d succeeded in taking me with them. Dammit! I was dying. This was going to be the worst Christmas ever.

As my life leaked out all over the floor, my thoughts turned to the home I’d left behind and now would never see again– our old ramshackle house, built in the ramshackle style of the early ramshackle period…

Those evenings on the front porch…

Taking a dip in the swimming hole on the hot summer afternoons…

Putting on my Sunday go-to-meetin’ clothes and going down to the Sunday meetin’s…

In the gentle reverie of my final moments on this Earth, I imagined the faces of all my loved ones– Mom, Sis, and Grandpa Joe– and said goodbye to each one. I imagined we were standing in the parlor as I prepared to leave. The wondrous odor of Mom’s apple pie was in the air, and in the distance I heard a familiar barking. The barking seemed to grow louder… and louder… and louder… Then the door to the hut burst open and in came Grandpa Joe!

“Grandpa Joe!” I cried. “How did you find me?”

“I didn’t, son, it was Lassie here that did it. Now you just sit tight; your mom’s on her way in the chopper. You’re gonna be just fine.”

“I’m saved!” The tears poured down my cheeks. “I’m saved! Thanks to Lassie!”

Lassie walked over and gently licked my cheek, as if to say, “Now can I shit in the house?”

“No, Lassie, you can’t,” I replied.