skinny kid of about twelve showed up at the fence one day and asked
me for a cigarette. Although that was mildly shocking, someone gave
him what he asked for – which I did find shocking. It was probably
done for the entertainment value of seeing a twelve-year-old smoke
with the false bravado of a miniature pool-room habitué. We were
always short on entertainment.
Another soldier saw my wincing face and said – “Oh, that’s just
Johnny.” As if to say, “it’s okay, he has a note from his mother.”
Johnny, hearing his name, responded with a smile and a touch to
his temple. Johnny spoke English, albeit with a Detroit accent.
He would usually start conversations with “Hey, Home, gimme a smoke.”
If you dared to lecture him on the evils of tobacco, he would cock
his head like a parrot learning a new word and stare at you. After
a brief silence, he’d retort: “Damn, Home, why you gotta put my
shit in the street?” That phrase roughly meant: “I’m surprised that
you would choose to disrespect me in such a public manner.”
Often something was lost in translation, but it didn’t stop Johnny
from speaking phrases with perfect mimicry – whether he knew the
exact meaning of his words or not.
Johnny was the ringleader of a tiny band of brigands-to-be that
reminded me of the Little Rascals but with almond-shaped eyes. The
only differences between the two groups was that there wasn’t a
child chubby enough to play Spanky and there was no dog to play
the role of “Petey.” Don’t ask why.
Johnny ran his squad with military precision, deploying his “troops”
where they could be most effective. His little sister seemed to
do well wheedling onions from the cooks while his cousin “worked”
Headquarters Company for steak bones which would be sent directly
home for his mother to make noodle broth. A cousin was expert at
obtaining Danish cookie tins – a much sought after treasure since
its tight lid would protect family photos and sewing needles from
Johnny could also run into town and buy things we needed, but only
when his troops were already deployed. ANYTHING was available on
the black market – even in Podunk Bong Son. Of course we had to
take Johnny’s word on the cost of things, but we had no choice.
Jungle boots? No problem. They could take six weeks if ordered through
the company supply sergeant – but Johnny could have them today –
for a slight surcharge.
On the rare occasion Johnny made change, he would bring out a roll
of paper bills that could choke a water buffalo. The military scrip
we used was the core of his bankroll with larger Vietnamese bills
wrapped around that. But once in a while the wad would open and
reveal some very strange looking currency. Johnny would mutter the
Vietnamese equivalent of “Oops. You weren’t supposed to see that”
and smile as he quickly put the strange bills in his back pocket.
He soon discovered there was a market for North Vietnamese currency
which had great mark-up for its souvenir value among Americans.
Sure, your uncle may say he got that 50 piaster note off a dead
NVA, but it also might have spent some time in little Johnny’s wallet.
There was no denying Johnny was a rascal who “worked both sides
of the fence.” But he had an innocent side too (if you looked hard
enough). He was like a Vietnamese Opie Taylor – but without the
freckles (and with a two pack a day habit). He was barefoot like
Huck Finn and if there was a black market for barbs, Johnny could
probably convince us to remove them off our fence – as a loan, of
But inside his little calculating head (his brain was undoubtedly
an abacus) we knew there was a boy. Somewhere. We discovered his
inner child one day in a series of events that began in a most distressing
was climbing up the three steps of our bunker opening one morning,
having slept late because of guard duty the night before. Someone
called to me and said, “Hey, Troesser, did you hear? Johnny’s been
I figured he had finally short-changed the wrong guy – but it turned
out to be an accident. A newly arrived replacement on guard duty
hadn’t been told the location of the village outhouse and was following
a small shadow with his sights when the trigger was unintentionally
It wasn’t unusual to get sniper fire from the other side of the
highway, but the South Vietnam Army armored personnel carriers usually
responded to that threat – that is if they weren’t too busy with
their embroidery. Yes, embroidery. While our Army knew “hurry up
and wait” – Vietnamese troops had an attitude of: “if we’re going
to be waiting, we might as well do something constructive.”
No one was sure exactly where Johnny lived. It was an arrangement
which I’m sure pleased Johnny. That made visiting him out of the
I was relieved to hear it was only a “flesh” wound, but in my mind’s
eye, I couldn’t remember offhand where Johnny had any flesh. He
was as skinny as the proverbial broomstick. He was take-a-shower-and-never-get-wet
skinny. Since no one seemed to know his exact condition, we sent
for the battalion interpreter to question some of Johnny’s tiny
We lured the interpreter over from HQ company by hinting that we
might be in the market for some star sapphires – a commodity that
was a lucrative sideline for interpreters to supplement their paltry
He came, he saw, he translated, but he sold no sapphires.
He did, however, confirm that Johnny had only been shot in the elbow
on a trip to the latrine. One of the listeners blurted out: “What
elbow? Johnny’s too skinny to have elbows!”
M 16 rounds are .223 caliber – so they make a very small entrance
wound. The destructive force (as it was explained in basic training)
was in the round’s ability to “ride the bone” and more or less take
a long circuitous ride inside the body, doing as much damage as
possible. The instructor seemed to take delight in the phrase “ride
the bone” – as if the little copper missile was simply catching
a bus to the next vulnerable organ.
In Johnny’s case the wound was a simple “in and out” and later that
day he showed up at the fence with his little broomstick arm in
a sling. His smile was a little sheepish and he muttered something
that I suppose was Vietnamese for “you should see the other guy.”
You couldn’t help but feel for the little guy – after all, he was
supposed to be a noncombatant. We missed the attitude of our bantam
Bogart, so over lunch we came up with a way to raise his spirits
through a phony award ceremony, keeping the phoniness to ourselves.
We sent henchchild #4 into town to buy a Purple Heart medal – yes,
they were for sale in the village and yes, they were genuine. Straight
off the docks in Qui Nhon.
Henchchild #4 had learned from the best – but still she struggled
with her pronunciation of “no change” as she delivered the goods
– complete in its elongated case.
We chose late afternoon for the “ceremony.” The location was the
village school yard that was wedged in between two of our guard
posts. About eight of us gathered and if we had dress uniforms,
we would’ve worn them. We went through some invented-on-the-spot
half-stepping and more or less imitated medal-pinning ceremonies
we had seen in movies. One of us filled a cheek with air and blew
a kazoo-bugle sound effect.
beaming and his little chest (smaller than a turkey but bigger than
a chicken) was stuck out to receive his medal. He was wearing his
father’s cleanest shirt. I wish I could remember what was said –
but it was just wild ad-libbing with lines like “for cheating us
out of our change” and “for loaning us money when we were broke”
(true). It ended with “we proudly present this medal” with an over-the-top
salute which Johnny returned with his good arm.
All eyes were on Johnny and the kids took our cue and applauded
– while mocking him for the tears running down his cheeks – or perhaps
laughing at us for our tears. There wasn’t a dry American eye in
the school yard.
I’ll bet anything that somewhere in Vietnam there’s a 57-year-old
man with an American Purple Heart medal buried behind his house
- in a Danish cookie tin.
June 22, 2014 Column
© John Troesser
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