by J.E. Colussi
I was new in country, green and scared from all the stories I'd heard and pictures I'd seen on TV. This was no place for a 22 year old to be. How many times, when we were kids, did we play soldier? How many times did we die just to get up again and do it all over? Only this time, it was for real. But nevertheless, here I was and I was determined to make the best of it. After all, it wasn't like I was going to have to spend the rest of my life here, just a short tour and I'd be on my way home again. I put on my gear and got into the vehicle trying to push my fears into the back of my mind. It won't be long, it won't be long, I kept thinking, soon this will all be over.
As I proceeded to my destination; I had many more things to think about. Dodging the holes in the road and wondering what had caused them was the least of my worries. I didn't have time to think of land mines or booby-traps, my biggest fear was of the ambushes that usually came at the intersections of the roads. It was the swift attacks from the sides that were often deadly and feared the most. You never knew when one was coming but you entered each intersection as if this was the one. Each time I came to one, my mouth became a little dry and my knuckles turned white on the wheel as the fear I tried to suppress took hold of me. It was only about twelve clicks to my destination but it seemed like a thousand miles. The sweat was starting to bead up on my forehead and my neck was beginning to ache from all the quick movements of my head from side to side. Don't go too fast and don't go too slow, keep a safe distance from the vehicle ahead of you. The words of the old vets flashed in my mind and I would heed their sage advice. I was determined I wouldn't be caught in any ambush.
In what seemed like many hours later, I finally made it to the staging area. This was the place where I'd leave my vehicle and proceed the rest of the way on foot. As scary as the drive here was, it was a walk in the park as compared to this place. The attacks here were more frequent and could come from any direction. Not only did I have to concentrate on the sides, but now I had to worry about being hit from the front and the back. They could be only feet away from you and hit you before you could blink an eye. I was so scared and wondered if my final destination could be any scarier. I was about to find out.
I left my vehicle and began walking the two hundred yards or so to where everyone was gathering for the assault. No small feat because danger was everywhere and I no longer had my vehicle's steel to protect me. After a few close calls that sent the fear of God through me, I made it to where everyone was gathered, waiting for Zero Hour. I felt so out of place, I was the new guy amid all these seasoned veterans. No one spoke to me but I could tell by their looks and by their knowing smiles that they felt sorry for me. Some caught my gaze but quickly turned away shaking their heads. I sensed their overwhelming pity for me. "New meat, he won't last long." they were thinking. I could taste the fear. "Dear God, just let me get through this day and I promise I'll..." My prayer was cut short. It was time to go.
There I was, shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of grizzled vets who had seen this kind of combat many times before, and I was determined to make them proud. Armed only with a credit card and a list, I became part of the human wave that poured through the doors as the mall opened. Suddenly, excitement took the place of fear and trepidation as I was swept into the very bowls of Hell itself. "Stay away from the perfume aisle, they'll spray ya!", I heard an old vet yell over the noise and confusion. I heeded his advice, got off the main trail and took a short cut through ladies lingerie. For a few seconds, I became a little disoriented between the bikini panties and the silk nighties, but then I saw an opening between the dresses and the sweaters and headed for it. As I got to it I was jumped by a salesperson screaming, "Can I help you?" A sudden attack of anxiety overtook me. But all those months training for this day paid off. "No!", I screamed back and held up my list for her to see as I darted by her. I might be a green rookie but I was nobody's fool, I knew what my mission was and no one was going to keep me from doing it.
I had finally reached the men's department where it was relatively safe. I pulled out my list and read it over. I needed a plan of attack. The biggest danger, as it was told to me, was to wander around aimlessly, not knowing where to go. Better men than me had unknowingly wandered into the perfume aisle. "They'll spray ya!" The words of the old vet echoed in my mind. "They're not going to get me," I said to myself, "I have a plan." Standing behind the dress pants, I studied my list again and mapped out a route in my head. Shirt for dad, CD's for sis and...uh oh, perfume for mom. How could I have missed that before? No way was I going down the dreaded perfume aisle. "They'll spray ya! They'll spray ya!" I needed a change in plans, so I took out my pencil and scratched off perfume and in its place I wrote vase. Now I was ready. It was my time, die like a man or walk out like a hero. I ran to the shirt section and got one, then off to Electronics for a couple CD's, then off to Housewares for mom's vase. Three quarters of my mission had been accomplished. Now all I had to do was find a place to pay for it all. Yeah, I heard the stories...the second most dangerous place to the perfume aisle was the checkout counter. But nothing could stop me now!
I lurked around the pots and pans waiting, watching for a checkout counter that had no people waiting in line. Suddenly, I saw one! Now was my chance. I walked quickly towards it, determine to be first, when I saw an old lady heading for the same counter from the other direction. In her arms, she must have had twenty different things. I picked up my pace knowing I could beat her there. Ten more feet! "Nice try, old lady!", I said to myself as I decreased the distance to the counter. Then it happened! With only a couple more feet to go, a woman came out of nowhere right in front of me. Then another! And another! I knew it could happen but I never thought it would happen to me. I had been so careful but I found myself fifth in line behind the old lady. The pain was excruciating but the thought that this will soon be over, steeled me for the long wait.
Twenty-five minutes later, my mission had been accomplished. With my credit card back safely in my wallet and packages under my arms, I headed back to the doors and then the parking lot. I was almost giddy with the sense of pride of having completed my mission and completed it well. I smiled knowing smiles at the rookies that were just getting there like the old vets had done to me. I too, was now a veteran of combat, I had been there! Now, it was their turn. Suddenly, my euphoria turned to sheer terror. Thinking of the stories I could tell my grandchildren, I lost my way and found myself in the dreaded perfume aisle. It was too late! Before I had a chance to make a break, I was sprayed with some perfume I had never heard of but was on sale. I mustered the last bit of strength that remained and tore myself loose from the salesperson and staggered towards the doors. I could see a couple of the old vets shaking their heads and laughing but I didn't care. I was going home! One more trip through the staging area, one more drive on the ambush laden road and when I got back to base, I would receive my Combat Christmas Badge and my patch that read, "Men don't shop, they buy and get out!" and I was proud to be a man, a Christmas combat veteran!
About the author:
Joe Colussi was with D Company, 725th Maintenance Bn, 25th Infantry Division in DauTieng from March 1968 to March 1969. He is retired but keeps exhaustingly busy by working as a bartender for seven days a month. Besides shopping, Joe loves to read. His favorite books are "The Peloponnesian War" by Thucydides and "A Saigon Party: And Other Vietnam War Short Stories" by Diana J. Dell.