The Sound of Love
I liked to watch people’s faces change when they asked me about Vietnam, those solemn I’m-worried-about-you questions, as I was saying goodbye. I said, Hey, it’s not Hollywood or Vegas, but for me it’s just peachy-king dandy-fine, maybe my breakthrough gig (ha ha!). At least the war would take me out of the Tri-State area. I’d been singing and swaying my boobs there in one dive after another, ever since graduating New Rochelle High School back in 1965, when the only war people worried about was the one kids practiced duck-and-cover for.
Now, three summers later, Vietnam still didn’t seem much realer to me than the pink-and-red-rose pattern, smelling of Coty L’aimant, on Mamma’s doily-topped living room set. Two neighbors’ sons had come back rearranged like survivors of car wrecks. I’d learned to recognize the country’s funny S shape from the evening news. But honestly, I knew zilch about history—not surprising after taking Home Ec and busy-work classes in the vocational track. I’d been touched by history just twice. The first time didn’t really count (though it was a knockout for Mamma) because I was three when Dad got wasted in Korea. The second time was when a college-prep biology teacher that students like me never took, Mrs. Schwerner, had her son murdered down in Mississippi. I could hardly wait to see her tragic, celebrity face in the corridors, but I looked away when it happened. To keep up with the investigation, I read serious papers for the first time: the World-Telegram and Sun, the Trib and even the Times. I couldn’t believe those Ku Klux Klan guys got off at the trial. Maybe that was my first history lesson.
Mai in vita mia, never in my life—Mamma’s favorite saying—had I known how big the world was until my band flew to Vietnam. At the next-to-last stop, in Osaka, the civilian stewardesses got off. “Good luck!” they sang, their smiling faces distant. Afterward we had no one to talk to because the soldiers in their dress greens slumped potato-faced and silent. At Cam Ranh Bay we wobbled down the ramp into prickly wet heat and bathroom smells and the smiley back pats of our Hawaiian-shirted manager. We’d never so much as talked with him before, but even though I was bleary and rumpled, his too-big brown eyes swept down across my boobs. He looked at all of us the same way except for Bobby.
We’d started as an all-girls band. We came from New Rochelle’s Italian neighborhood, which other citizens considered exotic, even loose. That wasn’t true but was a good hook for most venues where we played. We called ourselves The Honey Bees (a la The Pleasure Seekers), The HoneyTones (Shirelles) and Amore (Mama Cass meets Janis Joplin). Annette, my best friend, sang in a pure soprano I knew well from St. Joe’s choir. Sophie was a mezzo-soprano, two years ahead of us in school and ten years in sex. I was a mezzo, too. Our male listeners probably didn’t notice me beside Sophie, though I could cover Joplin ten times better. Donna, a contralto, was a born drummer escaping hairdresser karma.
Our male managers (what other kind?) were a string of notes repeating decrescendo. The last started us murmuring about breaking up. Instead, we invited Bobby to join us as a manager-performer. He was a great performer. He also bubbled with ideas and yet, when we reined him in, he listened to us. So, did we want to get the hell out of Dodge? Him, too! He had a buddy who knew a guy who managed groups in Vietnam. He suggested changing our name to The Sound of Love, which was sharp marketing for a tour serenading lonely troops. He also pushed us to respect ourselves. We were professional musicians! Hard-working. Talented. All we needed to rise to the next level was rehearse, stretch our skills, become artists. Yeah. Artists of the spirit.
“Spirit?” we said.
“Fuck, yeah. What we’ll feel when our hearts ‘n heads ‘n music are all one thing. The audience’ll feel it, too. We’ll float up on it into the stratosphere. Up above the everyday bullshit of being working-class. Up above that dumb-ass war. Up above history.”
“Just so long as we float back down,” Sophie said.
OK, we didn’t buy all his highfalutin talk. But already we felt lifted up.
Bobby had great range. He flowed like water from tenor to baritone. He could dance and shimmy, holding his Buddy Holly Gibson like a girlfriend, until his forehead had bubble-bath beads and his body gave off a delicious sweet-and-sour smell some company should have bottled. Yet, being tall, dark and broad-shouldered, wearing black on stage like Johnny Cash, he was full of maleness just standing still. He was also a homo. After our heads had spun a bit, that was OK with us. We learned to feel so comfy around him that a couple times he shared a motel room with Annette and me. He felt comfortable, too. Alone, just the band and him, he dropped his macho gestures and used his own speaking voice. It sounded like James Dean’s but at moments glided up like a woman’s, husky yet girlish. Maybe at Cam Ranh Bay it was jet lag that made him forget and say hello to Sleazo, our new manager, in his private voice.
VIETNAM WAS A CHALLENGE but not as hard as biker bars in Yonkers and New London or worse, a Golden Oldies evening at the Lions Club or the American Legion. After Sleazo got us registered at the USO and billeted in Saigon, we worked around the city. Our first big gig was at Long Binh. We played under spotlights on an outdoor stage to a lake of olive-green fatigues and blue PJs that the hospital patients in front were wearing. We girls wore firecracker-red hot pants with white sweetheart-collar blouses ending just north of our belly buttons. While I kept time with my bass guitar, Donna played behind the beat (Bobby said her real brains were her drums), Annette kissed her sax, and Sophie and Bobby took turns singing. Sophie made smoochy-lipped smiles at the convalescents. One guy did a wheelie in his wheelchair and tilted over. He was still cheering while his buddies lifted him. Sweet Jesus, were we hyped up! Our best audience ever, testosterone wafting like perfume in the humid air.
“Hey!” Bobby said after our last encore. “Is The Sound of Love a band with a future or what?” He pumped his arm toward the starry sky above the stage’s cables. “We flew them to the heavens! Some are probably still floating there.”
Sometimes he talked like that, like a poet. Other times, when I suggested he send his songs to an agent or replace Sleazo, he always said, “Naw, performing’s better. It’s real.”
Maybe he was right. On the shadowed road back to Saigon we laughed and chattered in a magical space the war couldn’t reach. We changed fast at our ratty billet, with its stained mosquito nets and disinfectant smell, and took a Citroën taxi to the Rex Hotel. The rooftop bar-restaurant was crowded with exotic people. Besides a sprinkle of officers wearing khaki, there were Yanks in civvies, Vietnamese in shimmery silks and sharp-looking Frenchies in linen suits, all sucking up pleasure. We posed for snapshots at the parapet beside the big neon crown. Gazing below at downtown’s lights, we saw the cheerful red-and-white streaks of a battle beyond the river. Sophie said, “God, is this living!” We didn’t know then what those streaks could do to people’s bodies. Later a drawling Army nurse from Texas asked where we came from because of our accents and olive skin. She warned us about Sleazo, whose camera-lens eyes kept shifting our way between the animal-shape shrubs and ceramic sculptures as he glad-handed from table to table. Then she got interested in Bobby.
“Well, lieutenant-ma’am,” he said in his silkiest baritone, “I had to come a long way to meet you, but I’m glad it happened.”
“Lovely Lorene. I’ll bet you make the sun shine for the guys you take care of. Heartbreaking work, huh?”
“You’ll never know. But thanks for askin’.”
Lorene had a strawberry-blond bob and a turned-up nose. She and Bobby made a cute couple—kind of Doris Day and Rock Hudson. Bobby was too soft, or maybe too selfish, to turn down flirtations. In the end he’d leave the girls puzzled and hurt. That was his only habit I didn’t like after I got over his thing for men.
I looked past him and his cowgirl at Donna, Annette and Sophie. They’d drawn admirers as fast as mermaids. I’d done OK myself, despite Dad’s Sicilian beak, because I was that scarce thing, a round-eyed girl. A tap on my bare shoulder blade made me think, Wow, third lover boy in ten minutes, but what a jerk to touch me before saying hello.
“Maria, Maria, Maria … I’ve just met a girl named Maria.”
“Actually, Warren,” I said to Sleazo, “we met what seems like a long time ago.”
“Haven’t broken the ice yet. Would you care to break the ice, just the two of us? We could slip away.”
I did my best imitation of Mamma’s hands-on-hips “You wanna repeat that?” look.
“OK, OK, break my heart, Maria, I’m used to it. By the way, I hope that gal with Bobby is used to it. Or maybe—maybe she could convert him.”
“What’s it to you?”
“Nothin’ much. I just think it’s better if boys are boys and girls are girls. Especially over here. It’s one thing for these young Vietnamese guys to walk hand in hand, but if Bobby touches an American soldier—”
Long Binh was our high point around Saigon. We performed indoors and outdoors, in venues ranging from screened plywood buildings that reminded me of summer camp, except for their sandbagged roofs, to air-conditioned brick Air Force clubs that reminded me of the Knights of Columbus. Sure, the songs Bobby composed would never air on Armed Forces radio’s
Dawn Buster, even when we polished his lyrics. But what the hell. We did swell covers, and he turned an Animals number into our signature. It was simple and brilliant. He substituted “soldier” for “soul”:
I’m just a sol-dier whose intentions are good,
O Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood …
That got them cheering, whistling and stomping so much that the finale, We Gotta Get out of This Place, was nearly a letdown. Even Sleazo noticed we were different from other bands. He was what Mamma called a cafone, an oaf, and didn’t give Bobby credit, but he said, “The Sound of Love could tour here two years if you pack ‘em in like tonight. What am I sayin’? Till the last GI pulls his boots out of this shit heap and flies home! Uncle Warren’s got the contacts.”
Where or who we’d be in two years was hard to imagine. But for now, Vietnam was fab—hot and dirty, sure, but like the exciting college we never went to. The best part was romance. Donna, Annette and Sophie were dazzled to be dating officers. Sometimes they forgot to check for a pale strip on the ring finger. Truth be told, Sophie (a divorcée who liked to sing, behind her latest beau’s back, It Ain’t Me Babe) didn’t give a damn. We weren’t fast girls, not with the Blessed Virgin watching from her perch in our brains, but we all took the magic pill to protect us at moments Mamma had tried to warn me about without saying “lust” or “desire.” Probably she didn’t think of those words; she just remembered a feeling from long, long ago with Dad. When that feeling intoxicated us, we looked out for each other like lifeguards. Bobby also kept tabs on us. It was funny to hear him warn us about men.
“I’m a guy ‘n I go with guys, so I oughta know. A hard man is good to find, right? Just jokin’. But a good man is harder to find. More dangerous, too, ‘cause you might fall in love.”
“Not me,” Sophie said, fingering the beauty spot planted like a misplaced kiss near the corner of her mouth. “Been there. Just give me a hot Barbie-style Ken.”
I’d have been thrilled with love—I wasn’t Mamma’s daughter for nothing—but settled for a cutie-pie major who resembled a cross between Steve McQueen and Mr. Schroder, the gymnastics coach at New Rochelle High. I didn’t tell Bobby or the girls. They treated it as a big deal when a guy dug me because, well, I hadn’t had a nose bob like some college-prep Jewish girls did for their sweet sixteens. The rest of me above the neck was OK and my body was, in my secret opinion, as voluptuous as Marilyn Monroe’s. That’s what Manny—Major Lance Manley, what a name, lucky for him he got informal fast before I laughed—said when his thick fast fingers unhooked my Exquisite Form and lifted it away. I was worried about sweating because he’d pounced on me before the air conditioner in his hootch could cool me down after our sticky stroll from the officers club. Soon I stopped being self-conscious. I loved what his fingers were doing and thought he was respectful because he’d left my panties and his green boxers on. He smelled of Old Spice and the silver tinsel in his crew-cut brown hair was reassuring: he was an older man, experienced and unhurried, what could go wrong? Then, suddenly, he was standing and guiding my head toward his boner. It was dribbling and humped like he’d lifted tiny weights to make it muscular like the rest of him. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t frigid or naïve. But some things I never do.
“Hey,” I said. “Hey!”
I squeezed him with my nails. He yelped and nearly hit me before he said, “Sorry! Sorry, sorry. Can we run the tape back and start over?”
I was too upset to tell anyone. A week later Bobby sat down beside me in the web seating of this old cargo plane, a Caribou, which was revving its engines before it carried us on our longest trip since flying to Nam. He had a black-cherry crescent under one eye. In the plane’s cave-like belly, the dim lights and the quivering hum made us lean toward each other like whisperers of secrets in a Girl Scout cabin, not that I ever got to be a Scout. He asked me why I’d been so quiet. I told him, whiting out a couple details.
“Well, I been in some tight spots myself,” he said.
Everyone giggled. “Where were you last night?” Sophie asked.
“Lookin’ for love like everybody else.”
Donna, a Clairol Frost Tip blond whose bouffant was straggling from one of the greasy used helmets they’d issued us as we climbed up the ramp, raised her stenciled brown eyebrows. “Well, did you get some?”
“Not the right kind.”
We laughed. He never took his love adventures to heart, or so we thought.
Annette patted him on the arm. She was pretty like Mamma, a wholesome-looking brunette who’d graduated secretarial school before giving up respectability for music.
“Maybe you should be more careful,” she said. “There’s a war going on here. It puts guys’ gonads in their brains—–”
“What Maria found out,” Bobby said.
“No, really, they’re like boys who have to act more manly than they are. They egg each other on. Like high school but with guns. Sometimes I’m scared for us girls. We’re what they want, but we’re the enemy, too.”
“Story of my life,” Bobby said. “Guys who want guys hate the guys they want. It was like that in high school. My first love after I graduated, I met him in the Pussy Cat Lounge. Man, I thought he worshiped me, I was so much cooler ‘n better-lookin’. But after we did nothin’ much in his car, he asked me to step out. He cold-cocked me ‘n bashed me with a garbage can.”
“Oh Bobby!” Annette said.
“I know what you all think, wouldn’t it be God’s gift if I changed ‘n started chasing skirts.”
“Well, you can practice on me,” Sophie grinned, “but nothin’ serious.”
Bobby was wearing fatigues, a flak jacket and a camouflage-covered steel pot. He could have passed for a hard-core soldier until he smiled. The smile was sweet and full of white teeth that a lot of troops, coming from Possum Holler or some such place without dentists, didn’t have.
“You get enough practice,” Bobby said. Sophie laughed hardest of all.
Donna fluffed her curls where the pot, now in her lap, had squashed them. She said, “Why did Sleazo make us pack field jackets for Phu Bai? Where is this place anyway?”
“Aww, Donna, what you got underneath all that hair? They told us ten times. It’s up north, near Hué City.”
Sophie said, “I hear Hué got trashed. What’re we gonna do for fun?”
“You’ll find fun wherever you are,” Bobby said. “But seriously, our art comes first, right? We’ll knock ‘em dead. Then we’ll do tourist stuff in Hué ‘n take a cruise up the Perfume River.”
“Perfume River,” Annette said dreamily. “That’s a romantic name. Not like the Hudson, or the East River.”
Bobby started to answer, but the plane’s big engines roared so you couldn’t talk unless you leaned over in your straps and yelled in somebody’s ear. Then we were in the air and drops of water fell from the roof and there was a yellow-green mist as if we were already upcountry along the Perfume River, which I hoped would smell more romantic than the cabin did.
A SLAPPING COLD RAIN made us glad Sleazo had thought of jackets. From the metal-grilled, red-mud-spattered windows of our bus, the war up north looked serious. We barreled beeping along Highway 1, past trees dripping onto villages and roadside shacks selling fruit, tiny stacks of packaged goods and bottles of poison-brown fish sauce. The American bases were bordered by tall barbed-wire fences. Behind them stood bunkers and plywood buildings that looked worse than the crummiest public housing back home. No trees, no bushes—just phone poles, antennas and sandbag-dotted tin roofs rising above red mud up to a clay-colored horizon. We were in Eagle Country. That’s what the wood signs said beneath their Screaming Eagle emblems, besides giving handy advice like Stay Alert, Stay Alive. Bobby sat next to me, his warm thigh keeping me from shivering.
“Well,” he said, “this place sounded good in the Special Services guidebook. But it looks like New Jersey.”
Troopers in Eagle Country cheered like we were the Supremes or the Drifters, who’d played in white suits at Annette’s and my prom. We did gigs at the three big camps—Eagle, Evans, Phu Bai. Bobby introduced us.
“Hey, we’re The Sound of Love! An American band. Maybe you missed us on Ed Sullivan, huh? Actually, we haven’t played for him yet. He can wait. Where we are is here, ‘n this is where we wanna be. Here. In rainy, muddy, fucked-up, shit-eating Vietnam. Now. Just before Christmas. With you! Because we love you guys!”
Our audience kept on cheering, whistling, rebel-yelling through both sets and encores. We were homies—Americans—so we meant more to them than Filipino groups or even the Aussie band whose lead pranced around in snorkel gear singing Yellow Submarine. I loved surfing on those waves of sound and feeling they sent crashing our way. I also loved being a star, at least for a few hours, instead of the sweetie-pie homemaker that my graduation yearbook predicted I’d become.
We got a second-row bench when Bob Hope did his Christmas special under gray puffballs at the Eagle Bowl with the Golddiggers. He wore golf togs topped with a new green fatigue jacket and held a club the way some guys touch themselves, just to be sure it’s there. I was glad Bobby hadn’t gone with us when Hope dropped his wrist and made a homo joke. Screw him. What did he know? He looked old now, not the funny bright daddy-age man of my childhood.
Christmas at the officers club, where the brass got liquored up and obnoxious, wasn’t fun. On New Year’s Eve we recovered our spirits performing for the 101st Aviation chopper jocks. But the rest of January was a black-and-white war movie. It was also a soap opera, like Days of our Lives, where we repeated things and got bored and quarreled. We chopper-hopped from one drenched base to another all the way north to the Marines at Quang Tri, near the DMZ. We played at three hospitals and an orphanage whose kids broke our hearts. Rain pelted. Sometimes the silver drops, making the reddish mud spurt up, could have been bullets from a gunship. We all felt homesick. Nobody laughed when Bobby teased us by singing, “Young girls they do get weary...”
In February the monsoon clouds melted. We celebrated by sweet-talking an escort to drive us to Hué. Sunshine brightened rubble and French buildings the color of a chain smoker’s teeth. We chattered like kids on a field trip. Between the river and Le Loi Street, grass and trees sparked green like Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz. We squished spongy turf to the dragon-boat landing. Donna went, “P.U.!” As we throbbed toward midstream, she pulled her hair under her nose like a curly blond mustache.
“Bobby, why are we doing this? My feet are sopping, the river stinks, and what’s so great about ruins?”
“Aww, use your imagination. Floating on the Perfume River through a war-torn city. Visiting ancient tombs ‘n temples. History! This’ll be romantic when we remember it.”
Sometimes Bobby’s ideas, like his songs, didn’t work out. When we climbed up to the Heavenly Lady pagoda, the monks wanted money, while the cottony clouds grew dark. Thunder clapped our ears as we pussyfooted mossy steps down to the boat. We huddled, shivering under the arched tin roof, while wind sailed past the dragon’s head and smacked us with cold drops of rain and muddy river water.
We razzed Bobby for weeks. But our cruise marked a turning point. Afterward, the sun came out between rainy days more often; we quit talking about going home. With Sleazo AWOL (he had the hots for a half-French artist in Vung Tau), we got around on our own. Bobby made the contacts. It was funny to watch him lay his baritone and manly moves on straight guys he’d just met, making friends and snagging invites. We played for small outfits in odd corners of big camps or at nearby firebases and outposts. The same guys who whistled, gave rebel yells, stared hypnotized at hips and boobs were shy and sweet when they sidled up to thank us after the show. Those soldiers made us feel needed again, even loved. It was a high, and for love we took chances we shouldn’t have taken.
At the end of February a Chinook dropped us off at Eagle Beach. It was an in-country R&R center—a ramshackle resort on an island where the Perfume River meets the sea. The place had been closed for months because of rain and typhoons. We did the season opening. Raggedy grunts, who’d spent the monsoon out in the jungle, cheered nonstop, maybe less for our music than the sight of four round-eyes in babydoll dresses doing their best to belt out love and art (and not bump each other) on the dinky stage. The island felt safe, so after the show we didn’t stick together. Annette, Donna and Sophie were happy to cool down in the officers club, where lieutenants sniffed around them like they were the night lilies that smelled so strong in Mamma’s garden. Bobby and I strolled out to the beach.
Moonlight angled down, making the wave tops and the surf gleam. It was a romantic scene—or anyway, could have been. I hadn’t had a boyfriend since Saigon—a thought I’d gotten used to squelching. And yet I felt happy enough, still charged with the high of performing. In my mind I heard Bobby singing Ebb Tide. He always waited two beats after the opening chord—First the ti-i-de—so the feeling could sink in.
“Doesn’t it feel mysterious?” he asked.
“Being here. This is the South China Sea. Back home I never heard of it. The only beaches I knew were Jones Beach and Fire Island. Not that Fire Island was bad. I just wasn’t classy enough to be invited there often. I wasn’t a college boy. I didn’t know it, but my life was closed back then. Even after we started The Sound of Love. Here it feels like anything could happen. Y’know?”
“You mean like your life could change?”
“Yeah, only better. Like finding your destiny.”
“Wow. You’re gonna find your destiny in Vietnam?”
“Maybe. Another three songs, I’ve got enough for an LP. Remember that recording studio in Saigon my buddy runs? I can use it for free.”
“Well, when you go there, take me with you, OK?”
“Aww, Maria, here I’m fuckin’ blabbin’ about myself. Of course you’ll go. You have the best voice out of all of ‘em.”
He hugged me. The male perfume he gave off, sweat and soap and something just Bobby, mixed with the salt smell riffling in off the sea. Yeah, I thought, anything could happen here. Even to Maria Magdalena Stellato, the girl from west New Rochelle that I used to be and wasn’t anymore, standing on tiptoe on an Asian beach and looking into the moonlit face of the star of The Sound of Love.
The EM Club wasn’t my idea. Bobby, as usual, wanted to socialize with our audience. Heads jerked around like we were gunslingers sashaying into a bar in the Wild West. He was wearing his outfit—black pants, black rayon shirt with pearl buttons, black cowboy boots. I’d slipped on my intermission wrap. The raw silk had a looping orange orchid but was mainly the frosty blue of images of the Blessed Virgin. I might as well have been popping out of a yellow bikini. Troopers lurched like drunken circus bears, side-eyeing me. Two bolder ones hooted and offered to buy me drinks. “No, thanks,” I said sweetly. I sipped my beer and edged closer to Bobby. A big-boned, freckled kid in a boonie hat bellied up on my left. His eyes were streaked pink from 25-cent shots or something else. He tried to show me how fast his Ramcharger back in Knoxville would move from a standing start. His fatigue jacket cuff swept my glass off the bar. Nobody could hear it break, what with the surf of talk and Steppenwolf growling on the eight-track. When he tried to dab my wrap dry with his hat, Bobby swiveled.
“What the fuck?” he said. “Back off!”
The kid’s face changed like he’d been snake-bit. Across my chest he punched Bobby in the face. I two-stepped backwards. Bobby swiped him on the chin. The usual hullabaloo of bar scraps filled my ears. The Vietnamese barmaids screamed their words for Omigod. The kid knocked Bobby into the bar and kneed him in the crotch. Oomph! he moaned. I knew not to get between two guys fighting but yelled “Hey!” and reached to keep Bobby from crumpling over. Suddenly the kid spun away. His arms swam, his head jerked toward the ceiling fan. He fell like a sandbag on the linoleum floor.
The guy who’d socked him was wearing a Ranger’s black beret and camouflage fatigues. A flash, cruelty mixed with pleasure, faded from his face into an expression of concern. I thought, Peace be with you, thank God for the U.S. Cavalry when you can tell who’s who.
“Hey,” he said, “I apologize for that juiced-up illiterate. Listen, you guys wanna try something better than Carling Black Label? Me ‘n Blades”—I glanced at his tall, hollow-cheeked buddy—“we got a stash at our hootch.”
The Ranger mojo made the crowd part as we walked out. Following us, a voice like someone waking up jumped gears from hoarse to falsetto.
“Motherfucker! I’ll cut—”
The saloon doors swished shut behind us.
Outside, in the salt air, I cleared my nose of smoke-sweat-beer fug. The moon turned the surf to champagne down where Bobby and I had been standing before. My silver-lamé go-go boots crunched alongside him and his new friends into the pine shadows. I hated his habit of just up and waltzing off with strangers, but I wanted to stay with him. We entered a deserted hootch full of rucksacks and sat down on cots. Our rescuer introduced himself as Big Al. His name was a joke—he was slim and short. He lit a J. In the Zippo’s flare his face looked as smooth as a boy’s who didn’t shave. I took baby tokes of the pungent hash when it came to me. Blades, quiet, smiled at me with his mouth under the shadows of his cheekbones. He had no clue how to talk to a woman. Big Al was an easy talker, reassuring when he addressed me, though he talked mainly to Bobby. I could see Bobby was getting fascinated. What the Rangers did exactly, I wasn’t sure, except that they snuck up on the enemy in small teams and killed a lot of them. They also died a lot, sometimes whole teams. They were what regular grunts dreamed about becoming in the wet dreams they wrote on their steel pots’ camo covers: We Kill for Thrills, Sick Bad & Love It, Your Worst Nightmare. I was relieved when Bobby woke from his trance after the second time I kicked him.
As we stood up, Blades said, “Hey, you wanna see some souvenirs—”
“Shit-for-brains! Don’t even think about it,” Big Al said.
He grinned, shaking his head, to show the joke was on him: Look what a crazy partner I gotta put up with. Ears: a color slide of cut-off ears flashed. I’d never seen them, though I’d heard about guys carrying them like dried apricots in bags in their pockets. The USO had never prepared The Sound of Love for this side of the war—not for killing or nasty things I couldn’t imagine anyone in our audiences doing.
Big Al shook my hand. He wanted me to like him, but his soft brown eyes didn’t hold mine for long. He joked with Bobby about getting to travel around with four hot … he hesitated before he said “ladies.” He really was on his best behavior.
Being on tour in Vietnam was like being Alice down the rabbit hole. It was normal to meet characters, Red Queens and Mad Hatters, you’d never dream up back in the World. It was also normal never to see them again, since everyone moved around so fast. I forgot Big Al, Blades, the Ramcharger kid. I only remembered Bobby and me, alone in the moonlight.
The hot season wrapped the countryside around Hué in a bright damp blanket. Sometimes, late afternoons, a thunderstorm would blow in from the mountains. The wind would whip up reddish dust devils from the defoliated ground of the bases. Then the first fat drops would smack the dust back down. At that time the war got hotter. Every place, every unit seemed to be getting hit or probed. The Sound of Love was performing for the artillery guys at Camp Evans when white streaks shot across the starry sky and made a fire fountain out of an oil tank.
Bobby and I crowded together in a bunker. I said, “History’s catching up with us.”
He shrugged. “Hey, we’re artists. We got a home-free pass. And these cats—well, when they listen to us, they rise above history, too.”
I didn’t remind him about Brandi Perry and the Bubble Machine getting shot up.
The hot season allowed us to perform closer to Injun country—what the GIs called enemy territory. Firebase Birmingham (everyone said Beeham) was huge. It was a dusty, cinnamon hump above the Perfume River. To the west, tawny-green foothills rose and fell until they reached the dark green mountains. They reminded me of the Catskills, the only mountains I’d ever hiked, which Annette and I loved despite the rapist lurking there that weekend. We arrived on Beeham early in the afternoon. Bobby was fizzing with energy. He liked playing closer to the war. He’d gotten antsy and hitched twice to Camp Eagle to look for Big Al at the L Company, Rangers compound. The second time he found him, along with Blades and the rest of their team. He stayed the night. He came back looking goofily happy. He told us that someday they’d smuggle him out on a mission deep in Injun country—maybe the A Shau Valley or Laos, cut off from the sky by triple-canopy jungle where the Ho Chi Minh Trail snaked and tigers and elephants wandered. Donna, Sophie and Annette laughed. He was just being Bobby, swept away by his imagination. They teased him about his new haircut that had replaced his Fabian pompadour. He didn’t notice me, hands on hips, staring. He hadn’t gotten a GI buzz cut. Instead it was regular civvy-length hair like the Rangers could wear because they got high body counts. It reminded me of Big Al’s dark mop when he finger-combed it after taking off his beret in the dim hootch at Eagle Beach.
Bad pennies, Mamma taught me when some boys kept teasing me in fifth grade, are troublemakers who roll back into your life once you let your guard down. Big Al was the first bad penny. The second one was the RamCharger kid, whose company was pulling security at Beeham. He sat in the second row of benches outside the mess hall, whooping it up with his buddies except when he remembered to scowl, like Snidely Whiplash, at Bobby. I’d have giggled if his sunburned squint, bandolier-crossed chest and dull black rifle didn’t make me wonder what he and his buddies had been doing to the Injuns out there in those emerald mountains. At intermission, in the shady mess hall, we mopped our faces, sitting on green mermite cans among pots and cooking equipment. Pop! Annette screamed and red smoke billowed. We stumbled into sunlight. One side of Annette’s face was smudged and her brunette hair had a cherry splotch like a bad henna job. Bobby shouted, “That fucker—I’ll kill him!” An avenging cowboy in black, he tore around the half-empty benches before two sergeants grabbed him.
“Aww, Annette,” Bobby said, “this is all my fault.” He kept his arm around her as a medic wiped the smudge from her face with gauze and antibacterial soap. A red spot marked her cheek where the smoke grenade had hit her.
At Phu Bai the next day we felt tighter than ever. Annette was our sister. The Sound of Love was our true family, unlike the USO or the clueless Army brass. The CID lieutenant investigating the “incident” asked to speak to Annette in private. We circled his desk. We said, “Unh unh,” “No way,” “We’re in this together.” He wasn’t any Joe Friday—just another slow-talking Southerner, our age, who couldn’t wrap his brain around the fact that we knew who did it. Finally Annette shook her pageboy, lustrous from a bottle of Prell conditioner.
“I’m not hurt. I don’t want the asshole who threw that thing to come after Bobby again. Let him stay out in the boonies away from us. I’m not pressing charges.”
We spluttered. Mr. CID protested, but not much. He gave Annette a waiver to sign.
“General Crompton knows about this. I’m sure he’s mighty sorry. We appreciate what y’all are doin’ for the troops.”
The last bad penny was Sleazo. His artist honeypot in Vung Tau had dumped him, so after Sophie wrote to him about Annette, he flew to Eagle Country. He pretended to be all concerned. What excited him, though, was that The Sound of Love had crossed a general’s radar screen. He said he’d fix up a special performance for the 101st’s top brass and have the Stars and Stripes cover it. When he wasn’t talking big, he complained about the heat and knocked Bobby in his sly way, humming “The Game of Love”:
The purpose of a man is to love a wom-an,
And the purpose of a woman is to love a man …
Bobby didn’t give a rat’s ass about Sleazo’s opinions. Anyway, he was absorbed in his own kind of romance, vanishing whenever we didn’t have a gig. Donna and Sophie wondered who. Annette and I fretted. I was afraid he might really go on a mission and get wasted. I was hurt, too, because he didn’t confide in me. Why he’d gotten seduced by the Rangers—the war could be glamorous, sure, but only at a certain distance—beat me. Maybe it was for love. After he returned from his second overnighter I grilled him.
He looked surprised and wriggled. “Blades? He’s a knucklehead but not bloodthirsty. He throws up before he gets on a chopper to go on a mission.”
“What are those souvenirs he talked about?”
“He cut … Aww, I’m not gonna tell you. They’re nasty things.”
“So if he’s not dangerous, who is? Big Al?”
“Dangerous ‘n sweet. But him ‘n me, we’re cool.”
Sleazo made good on his word. We were going to perform for the brass at Camp Eagle’s officers club. Maybe they’d even give us a citation: for valor in the pursuit of art and love or whatever. Sleazo bugged us to rehearse, quarreled with Bobby and was an ungodly pest. Despite him we were psyched. Yay! After so long—we’d toured in Nam forever, it seemed like we’d grown up there—we were catching a break. Bobby tried to get with the spirit. He even barked at us, like in the old days, when we muffed the grace notes he was teaching us. Yet I saw ripples of feeling on his face, in his dreamy sapphire eyes, which told me The Sound of Love wasn’t enough to fix the hole that had been letting in whatever was making his mind wander. He’d become entranced with different music. It was music he could only play with someone else—a shadowy someone who whirled him up to a dark, sweet, hurting place we couldn’t follow him to. A snapped string stung my heart. Fuck him! If Bobby didn’t care about us anymore, I decided, there were always the GIs, who acted like we were Connie Stevens or Chris Noel, naturally blond and gorgeous. Maybe I’d have my Rendezvous with Destiny, as the 101st Airborne motto on the signs said, with one of them.
The day before our command performance, at breakfast in the officers’ mess, Sleazo’s baby crow’s-feet widened into furious wings. General Crompton had sent a note on Screaming Eagles stationery asking the band to have lunch with his staff and him. Bobby was AWOL. Sleazo shoved aside the half-eaten pancakes on his mud-colored tray.
“Hey Warren,” Annette said, “cool your buns. This is a last-minute invite. Bobby didn’t know about it.”
Donna said, “He always talks about being professional. He oughta be with us now, not waltzing around with—”
“Except for Bobby,” I said, “we’d still be waltzing around within fifty miles of Times Square.”
Sleazo’s front teeth, along with his eyes, were too big. They looked sharp—like Blades’s, but white.
“Fuckin’ Bobby. Like a bitch in heat.”
I got up from my powdered eggs and strode out of the noisy, dim, fan-cooled mess into the glare of a hot morning.
What was there to worry about? Bobby wasn’t just an artist, he was a professional. For sure he’d return soon, bedraggled from his latest love adventure. He’d snooze, shower, lead us to glory—or at least to a sharp-sounding set. Everyone but me got into a jeep to go eat with the General at Camp Eagle. Sleazo’s words, bad-mouthing me for playing hooky, echoed as I strolled to the PX. I liked to talk with the female soldiers and Donut Dollies in blue dresses I sometimes saw shopping there. It was like bumping into hometown gals out of town, and men left us alone when they saw two women together. After I got back to my hootch a jeep churned up red dust, stopping with a jerk. I had some nutty idea it had come for me—a summons to join the brass for dessert—when I saw a starched dapper captain get out. I opened the screen door, looking forward to saying no. The guy’s frown made a trench in his forehead. He was the Division PIO, he said. When did I last see Mr. Buonavita? When I told him his trench deepened.
“Sorry to tell you this, but, well, it’s believed that Mr. Buonavita’s body has been found.”
“I can’t give details, but someplace he shouldn’t have been. If it’s him. The body’s at the Phu Bai collection point. We need two people to make a positive identification. Where’s your manager?”
“Having lunch with the rest of the band. With General Crompton.”
“You’re shitting me. Sorry! Well, I’ll go find him.”
I didn’t wait for his jeep to dissolve in the glare. I walked to the motor pool and made nice to the first guy I saw. My girl magic worked. Only after I’d climbed into his utility truck did he remember to ask where to go. I told him.
“Oh, roger that. LZ Tombstone.”
With the delicacy that ordinary soldiers often showed, he asked nothing more. He smiled to himself as though nothing could ruin his escapade with a round-eye.
The collection point was a landing pad, two plywood buildings and a big canvas tent. It lay inside an old Vietnamese cemetery, full of gravestones engraved with Chinese-looking swirls and strokes, which the base’s perimeter had enclosed. The driver tipped the brim of his cap. “I’ll wait on ya. Don’t stay in there too long, hear?”
The white paint on the front building didn’t quite cover the remains of a black skull and crossbones. Inside, a young sergeant shot me an amazed look. Wow, an American girl, here. He stood up behind his paper-strewn OD metal desk.
“Graves Registration needs two visuals. Someone else is comin’, right?”
“Our manager. Warren Slezak.”
“Where’s he now?”
“Sucking up to General Crompton.”
“He better get here soon.”
“Because a Chinook’ll be here at 17:00 to fly the remains pouches to the mortuary in Da Nang. They can’t stay here more than 24 hours.”
I followed him outside to the building in back. It was solider than the hootches where soldiers slept and had shuttered metal windows with screens. He opened the steel door to one of the refrigerated chambers that he called “refers.” Anger had kept me together so far. Now the frosty, chemical-smelling air and the lumpy body bags made my stomach flip down, like a diving board, then spring back up toward my throat. He peered at the tags hanging from bags like a hotel clerk looking for which guests were in.
“Yeah, right here,” he said.
“What’s this BTB?” I stared at the block letters on the tag in front of Bobby’s misspelled name.
“That means believe to be. You ready?”
He unzipped the head of a seaweed-green rubberized bag. There was a Chianti-stained bandage and a face so white, except for black stubble, that maybe all the blood had soaked into the layers of gauze. It wasn’t Bobby—maybe his dead cousin or an extra from The Mummy.
“Mai in vita mia,” I whispered.
“Say what?” He waited for me to speak. Finally he asked, “You don’t recognize this individual?” I started to shiver. He said, “Ahh, sorry, this is tough. Especially for—well, a female civilian ‘n all. You wanna come back with your manager?”
Anger made the blood jump in my chest. I felt better and wanted to know everything, the way I’d wanted to know the details about the murders in Mississippi.
“Listen. He had a Cupid tattoo on his butt. On his left cheek. Unzip the bag the rest of the way.”
“I can’t do that, ma’am.”
“Why, you worried about my modesty?”
“You really don’t want to see.”
“Yes, I do.”
He shrugged, tightened his lips, pulled the zipper and lifted the heavy flap down to mid-thigh. Stiff ripples of coagulated blood stranded Bobby’s pubic hair. They ended in little cliffs overlooking the stained canyon, empty, between his thighs.
“They did this to him?”
“I’m not CID. I don’t know about any ‘they.’ I seen guys missin’ everything, including heads. I volunteered for the infantry to get out of here. I don’t like this job, ma’am.”
“That’s not him.”
“What d’you mean that’s not him? I told you we got his Special Services ID. Don’t you want to see the tattoo? To confirm?”
“I’m not confirming anything. Bobby’s a complete man. He was never missing anything. This isn’t him.”
“OK, I’m sorry I unzipped this.” He jerked the green flap back over the fish-white body with its curlicues of black hair, still cute, on the chest. “Too much for you. Why the fuck didn’t they send a guy?”
Later Sleazo and Sophie did the ID. When he returned in his sweated-through Hawaiian shirt, he asked us to go to the officers club and down a few. We said no. He sank down on the footlocker beside my bunk and wept.
“C’mon,” I said, choking again. “It’s over. Tomorrow’s another day. That’s what you always tell us.”
He wiped the tears away with his knuckles. “This shouldn’t have happened. I didn’t care enough. You’re like my kids. I’m responsible. I should’ve sent Bobby packing a long time ago. I don’t know how I’m gonna explain this to the USO. This is the end of The Sound of Love. Oh, fuck!” He started crying again. “This is terrible.”
I never found out if he meant the damage to his career or what happened to Bobby.
A YEAR LATER I was a student at Iona College. Sleazo had released Annette and me from our contracts, as if we cared. We finally understood why soldiers called the plane that would carry them home a Freedom Bird.
Iona had admitted me despite my vocational degree, the acceptance letter implied, because of my “courageous service” to my country. What a holy crock. They needed warm, paying bodies, which is why they’d gone co-ed while I was away. At first I’d thought they might let me in because I was Catholic and Mamma had our pastor, Father D’Amico, write me a recommendation. But since 1965 the war had changed everything, it seemed, not just clothes and hair and music. Iona wasn’t really Catholic anymore. Not long ago the president had quit the Christian Brothers to marry a nun. My World History prof was a young Jewish guy who showed us a film about the Holocaust.
History and bodies weren’t my thing, though I guessed I’d have something to say to Mrs. Schwerner if I saw her again. In Freshman Comp we had to write essays on our personal histories. I left out Vietnam. Hey, I remembered it, not just when a chopper beat the air above New Rochelle, but the people I’d been close to had made their exits offstage. For a while Annette and I got together. Later she began to doo-do the Dipsy Doodle with acid, moved to San Francisco and became lost to the nation, or at least to me. Sophie surprised me by sending letters, her schoolgirl’s script slanting on thin blue sheets. She’d bleached her hair and was starring with Donna in Sleazo’s new group, Blonde Love. They stayed in Nam six more months, until they saw no future in singing In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida for the umpteenth time. Sophie and Sleazo got hitched; maybe in her heart of hearts she liked flashy oafs.
Bobby Bobby Bobby. I thought about him often, not full thoughts but snapshots. Then the pictures vanished into some kind of folder until one afternoon when I was sitting in the College Diner, across North Avenue from Iona’s front gates. I was proud to be studying at Iona, even though I lived with Mamma to save money, but sometimes it was desperately draggy. Especially old literature. I’d propped my anthology against the gleaming tabletop jukebox that I was dying to play—anything to occupy my mind other than this damn poem, “Lycidas.” I wished the uncouth swain had moved on to his fresh woods and pastures right off the bat, instead of mooning and singing on the shore.
My hand reached toward a Standard-Star some customer had left. The front page had a story about a New Rochelle kid, a Screaming Eagle—God, so young, so much younger than me now—killed in Vietnam. Maybe the last one, the paper guessed. I’d quit following the war’s details, but Tricky Dick had withdrawn a lot of troops after invading Cambodia, and it seemed like a tragic joke to get wasted this late in the game. It hit me that soon the whole war, like The Sound of Love, would become a memory. Then the memories would fade or worse, stay exactly the same, like the photo in the living room of my young, smiling dad in his dress uniform.
I began thinking about Bobby. A tightness like a coiling bandage rose from my stomach to my throat. I pushed the paper aside and held the anthology close. If anything could take my mind off old unhappy stuff, this present pain in the butt, “Lycidas,” could. I read the poem again. The diner’s familiar air—coffee and grilled cheese and bacon and burgers—became unfamiliar, bringing back the smells of Vietnam. I thought about Edward King, aka Lycidas. Drowning was bad; his body must have stunk like the worst ones that got flown back in bags on planes that weren’t Freedom Birds. But then the swain sang to him and he became a Genius of the shore, which the footnote said was an angel or a spirit.
Maybe it was an effect of the Chock full ‘o Nuts and coffee cake I’d had to fortify myself before class, but the bandage dissolved. Movies of Bobby lit up my brain: Bobby singing, strumming, horsing around, just being himself. Yeah, he was a spirit now. But he wasn’t a scary spirit. I pictured him, the sweetheart of the Perfume River, wandering our old stomping ground from base to base, all the way from Eagle Beach to Firebase Beeham, catching rides in trucks and choppers and sampans, giving people happy shivers, even Vietnamese, without them knowing why. Really, he’d been my sweetheart, more than anyone else in what I now saw as my youth. Someday when the war was over I’d go back to Hué as a tourist, take a dragon boat up the river and sing to him so he’d know he wasn’t forgotten. Vietnam was a good country for ghosts. Who knows, maybe he’d sing back to me.
▪ ▪ ▪
Jim Fairhall teaches modern literature and environmental studies at DePaul University in Chicago. His publications include award-winning works of scholarship, fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry. He has just completed Perfume River: A Novel in Stories of Love and War. Four of the stories have won national awards, including the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival Award for Fiction. Read the author’s commentary on his story.