The Meal

By Denis Chericone

It was the third week of the siege. Lang Vei hadn’t gotten hit yet and we were still waiting for relief. Our hunger was gnawing at us. It had been four days of very little to eat. The guys who were good at scrounging ranged out through the marine base but had produced only scraps. Most of the marines were in the same boat. They spared us a few boxes of old C-rations; but that was only good for a day or so. It was reaching in. We tired easily and had trouble sleeping. Our collective mood was a shade or two past pitch black and I found myself leaning on dreams in a hazy distance. I was learning about hunger, its gluttony for emptiness. I know it sounds wrong, all wrong, but It’s definitely more than a feeling in the stomach. It carries weight. It has influence. It can convince your mind and body of things which aren’t in the vaguest of ways connected to the reality around you. It can nourish paranoia. Some of the guys were resigned, some were philosophical, some pulled out an element of practicality: It’s good training, they said. Others were taunting each other with elaborate descriptions of cheeseburgers, milkshakes and fries. Tommy, one of our younger Spike team guys, sang an old Dairy Queen commercial and then held forth on the many variations of potatoes. I never heard so many “Fuck you’s” in my entire life and never had a potato been so sultry. Simply more ingredients for our extreme discontent and frustration.

Our initial disappointment, you know, being left to molder, unprepared, unsupported, on our own in the middle of a raging hostility, had not gone down very enthusiastically with us. Our second one, being subordinated to the Khe Sanh marine commander, had aroused deep suspicions amongst the men. Who could forget the eruption of Mount Ammo during the first barrage? (Flag urged we refer to it as Mount Saint Ammo since so many had met their maker) In any case, we didn’t expect much. Number three, loss of our water supply was just sinking in, waiting in the wings along with the ongoing threat of a ground assault.

Dawn was just splaying out when Pitbull assembled most of us in the med bunker and came as close to yielding an apology as anyone ever could. He told us headquarters was trying hard to get us the basics and we shouldn’t have to wait too much longer. “I want a hotdog!” wavered out of the group and everyone laughed, even the boss. It thinned the intensity. What could we do? A better world was beyond our reach and we all knew it. Then Louie, a spike team leader on watch along our main trench, popped his head around the entryway saying there was something happening in the minefield. Pitbull yelled a curt “Dismissed!” and everyone followed Louie up the bunker steps. We got ready for war.

There were no bombs. It was early morning and everything was still damp and quiet for a change. We took up various vantage points to scan our minefield. Clipper was standing next to me and asked me if it was Sunday. Then he said the farmers took off on Sundays, you know, church and all that. I couldn’t tell if he was serious or simply responding to the strangeness of our situation. He let out a long, low and astonished, “Whooooaaa!” All of us stared. There was a very large water buffalo sniffing around our minefield probably looking for food. It was hungry, too. A length of barbed wire hung from one of its horns. Guys were pleading it on. “Closer, closer, c’mon!” “Please find a mine. Please, please.” “C’mon, honey, be nice.” Then, Ka-Blam! A bright flash followed by blankets of smoke, clods of muck and a deep, strained and mournfully long wail like I’d never heard before and still can hear today.

The misguided creature died at the deadend of the moan and four guys were on the remains almost instantly; but not before Flag had knelt down and began whispering into the buffalo’s ear. He told me later how we owed the animal a debt of gratitude. It had provided for us. I’d never looked at it that way before; but I got it. As the men flashed their blades and cut it into sections we all helped carry pieces back to the shredded skeleton of our mess tent where the guys dressed it into steaks, chops and roasts. The Yards waited along with the rest of us, smiling expectantly. They wanted the head, liver, heart and the other things which resembled organs. I don’t know where they found it; but they had gathered big bunches of mint leaves and other greens we were not familiar with. If I can get away with saying this it was almost a festive moment. Food!

We built three fires, scrounged frying pans, pots, pieces of flat rendered metal from the mess tent debris and began the barbecue of a lifetime. Bob and Louie fashioned a spit after we finished digging a pit. Chuckles found a big bag of salt and we seasoned liberally. Everyone got something. A few of the guys wound up getting sick from eating too much, too fast, but they suffered happily. The medics had warned everyone to keep the first meal small, eat slow and chew their food; but hunger ruled and the race was on. We ate, and ate and then ate some more. The weird asterisk here is we didn’t get bombed on during this time. We didn’t even notice until later when we were licking our fingers. Maybe the farmers had a thing about shooting hungry people.

Flag rigged a smoker out of what remained of the field ovens and began smoking bits for later. He said we’d probably get five or six hundred pounds of meat from the carcass and smokers would help preserve what we didn’t use. I helped him as we tried to set things up where the smokers would be out of the way. The meat lasted for days.

The next morning mail had shown up for the first time in weeks (someone mumbled something about just desserts). We were ecstatic. Something beside bombs. Mail meant family amongst other things. Guys suddenly inhabited an intimate distance, a zone only they were familiar with. It was all theirs. It belonged to them.

The mood lightened some. Food and mail almost at the same time. Get outta here good. Guys were crunching on meat and reading about the lives of their loved ones. I snuck away to explore my own distant cosmos.

Settling into my sandbag recliner, I began rediscovering Far Away Land. As the letters spoke the distance narrowed. I could see the people of my own universe. I could hear them. They worried. They advised. They cautioned; but they didn’t know. They had no idea about this war. They were as lost as I felt myself to be. I wanted to hold it against them, you know, their innocence, their distance from things; but I couldn’t. I was too grateful for their ignorance, for the fact that they’d never wind up here. They were blessed, preserved and protected. Who would want something like Khe Sanh in the lives of those you loved; yet I sensed there was something else. It was so obvious I’d missed it. I envied them and I resented them for it. Feeling that way made me squirm. I didn’t like it. Resentment is like the flu. It takes over your whole body and makes you feel ugly, disheveled, remote and isolated. I struggled with it. I guess deep down I wanted someone to understand what we were going through, someone to acknowledge what we were doing for them. I wrestled with the self-pity of it.

Yeah, right, feeling sorry for yourself was going to make a difference Uh-huh. It was obvious, it didn’t matter. It didn’t and it never would. What did matter, though, was that there were people out there who gave a shit, who cared. Mail was reassurance in the end. It was someone holding on to you no matter how many days, miles and bombs lay between you.

Counting your blessings was vital at Khe Sanh. In a way, it was all you had. Even though some of us felt marooned we’d been taken care of, reeled in, held tightly away from starvation. Our families had shown up. They’d followed their concern, tracked their wonder and made sure our hearts were still in the right place. Not even the power of rockets could take that away.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR — From Denis Chericone’s LinkedIn biography: “While in the military I was posted to a remote and very isolated US Army Special Forces A camp, An Loc. While there I was in charge of a twelve bed jungle hospital where I treated everything from amputations to leprosy. I lived amongst the people of the area, the Gerai and Rhade Montagnards. This was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. They were Vietnam’s equivalent to the First Nations people of the Americas. Sociologically light years more sophisticated than the people of the industrialized west, the Montagnards exposed me to me a deeper understanding of the qualities that comprise the essence of being human.”

Denis is a writer, both of poetry and prose. You can hear Denis reading his poetry at the Oregon Poets Satyricon Poetry Series.

Denis is also a talented pianist. In 2021 he placed first in the music division of the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival (NVCAF), which resulted in an invitation to perform at the 41st NVCAF in 2022. You can hear Denis’ winning performance of the selections he submitted in 2021 on YouTube, which included one original composition. One other original, Fukushima #5, is included in the list of links below:

“Daybreak” — an original piece
“My Favorite Things”
“Ruby My Dear”
“When Johnny Comes Marching Home”
“Fukushima #5” — an original piece