I met Robert Lee Fitzhugh in Vietnam, we were both a couple of months into our second tours. Robert Lee, as he preferred to be called, was a good old boy of the south. Family had roots in North Carolina near Asheville but lived further south toward Franklin, nestled up in the mountains. He used to refer to me as a half breed since I was born in the south, Texas to be exact, but had spent my youth in the north near Philadelphia. My southern accent was almost extinct while his flowed as thick as honey and rubbed the ear like a silk handkerchief. Robert Lee was a soft spoken man with an easy manner but those who crossed him only did it once. Like a big old copperhead snake sunning himself, he could coil up and strike and strike hard like a hammer in a velvet bag.
“Conscripts, that’s what we are.” Robert Lee wasn’t often given to idle chatter, said it distracted him from the job at hand. But the night was quiet, that is the normal sounds one hears when the NVA isn’t creeping about trying to be sneaky. Our outpost was freshly dug that night and well hidden. “Feel like a deer out here at night waiting to change its sleeping spot at the first noise it hears.”
“Well, we got a couple more hours before we need concern ourselves. Still early yet, birds still quiet and the insects still chattering.” I was more noncommittal in my comments as the night was young and any visitors wouldn’t be stirring till near after midnight. Most of our attacks came about three AM cause that is when most guys fall asleep. “You’re not getting nervous on me, are you Robert Lee.”
“Son, the day I get nervous we both gonna die. Remember that.” I hadn’t exactly crossed him and he wasn’t striking out hard but I know I struck a nerve with my comment. “Sorry Mike, didn’t mean to rub your fur the wrong way. Just doing a little thinking, that’s all. Got money in the sock and just need a plan for next year.”
Robert Lee stayed quiet after that and as it came up on three that morning we heard the sounds of a couple of men trying to slip quietly towards our position. From what I could tell, seem to be about three men probing the area. One of them must have been a new recruit because he was making just enough noise to draw attention to himself. The other two seemed to be on his left flank. Robert lee and I were more concerned about the other two than the noise maker. But we had our trap set. An old trick that remained a trick because recon parties never made it back to tell their friends. Robert Lee slipped out as silent as a cat thanks to his training as a child in hunting back in the mountains. I stood by because I couldn’t emulate that cat like quality needed to glide along the ground in search of others who were searching for you. I stood by because if there was going to be a fire fight I was an excellent shot, damn near sniper material. I might be a little noisy but I could move quick enough and hit what I targeted on the run. Robert Lee and I made a good team, the best in the regiment. The noise maker was our trophy for the night. He was young and new to the game, he would sing for his supper.
The two of us went to Saigon for the weekend. You know, the usual scene of drinking and bar girls and fights with other GIs. I mean, what else was there to do? As Robert Lee put it, “You can raise hell or you can raise corn and tobacco, not much difference twixt the two.” That was one of his more loquacious moments when he explained the world to the satisfaction of all listeners. But this time he was quieter than usual. “Mike, I think I’ve got a plan. I’ve been saving most of my pay and got quite a nest egg set aside. You know staff sergeant Lopez? He’s Columbian, got family and a farm back in the hills somewhere. Can’t quite remember where. He’s got connections, good family connections. I think I can get some good seed to plant between the corn rows when I get home, raise me a cash crop. Uncle Tommy Lee says he knows people I can do some business with.” Wow! That was quite a mouthful for Robert Lee to get out. I hadn’t heard that many syllables from him since he explained an operation we completed last month.
“So you think Lopez can be trusted? He seems more like a lifer to me, I mean, what’s he got going for him?”
“He wants to be an American citizen so he needs references. He’s a quartermaster, no chance for medal, not even a purple heart. Besides, I collected some of his markers. Fool doesn’t know how to play cards. I’ll get what I want from him.”
I was silent for a while, thinking about Robert Lee’s plan. I mean it sounded half good. Family farms were playing out, not worth growing anything these days. My aunt’s farm taught me that. A lot of goddamn hard work just to pay the banks notes and keep the electricity turned on. I had learned about farming from the summers I spent on her farm. A lot of hard work in the heat of summer. That was the one topic Robert Lee and I could exchange our views. Western North Carolina was hard scrabble land, a bit rocky from the eons of mountain erosion, soil that begged for fertilizer, and hardwoods that encroached what fertile soil was left. But it had virtues undiscovered but many would be farmers, enough tree cover to hide covert activities. A few hundred acres would be enough to make his plan work. Plant some corn as a cover crop to hide the marijuana crop from the prying eyes of the AFT flights looking for illegal moon shine stills and harvest in the fall a commercial crop worth far more than the price of corn.
Robert Lee had a plan and I could see no real flaw except the DEA people nosing around, not that they were geniuses able to ferret out such ambitious enterprises. .I was in, volunteer for a second tour and try to stay alive. Together Robert Lee and I would caste our fates to the wind, there was a future to consider after our time in hell was up. That was the Joker, making through that last year alive. Four months before I was to complete my second tour my team was caught in a crossfire by the NVA, they had set a trap and the lieutenant had walked in to it. Raymond Berry was a reserve officer looking for a medal and he earned it posthumously, no amount of urging could prevent him from his appointment with death. Out squad was hit hard, two killed, the rest wounded to the point of medical discharge a year later. A medal is no substitute for pain relief. Meanwhile Robert Lee had made his way through the normal discharge procedure and collected his pay for services rendered.
The world was a different place now, America had changed, becoming almost a foreign land and I felt as if I were a stranger amidst a population I could barely recognize. Maybe I was the one who had changed, two years of war and another in an Army hospital trying to heal my wounds, trying to come to terms with all the death and dismemberment around me. Yeah, maybe it was me who had been lost in that fog called war and now the clouds were slowly lifting revealing a surreal landscape. I remember the Huey that picked us up, the ride laying next to the mangled body of Berry and the groans of the wounded buddies and the indistinct face of the medic as he kept an eye on me. If Rod Serling had stepped forward and welcomed me into the Twilight Zone I would not have blinked an eye. The morphine kicked in and did its job, my mind became a blank.
Drifting in and out of consciousness, or was it sanity, not sure I knew the difference yet there I was like an actor hearing the director of my movie giving orders: “Cameras, action, mark…Cut, print it”. All that was missing was a basic plot as so many seemed content to mumble their lines. No one ever said: “That’s a wrap!”. All I knew was that my body hurt while one leg was in traction and both arms covered in bandages. That brace on my neck kept me from seeing the rest of me but every day I was poked and prodded and each wound redressed, a routine that lasted several months. Some officer from my regiment told me that the NVA had managed to explode an old piece of French ordinance close to our position and that I looked like Swiss cheese. Burns from the flask of the explosion had made it difficult to remove all the shrapnel and I would ooze metal out of my skin for years to come. Lieutenant Berry had his Silver Star and I my Purple Heart, we were officially heroes and could feel proud of our service to our country. So began the long trip back to civilian life.
Eventually I parted company with the Army at Fort Bragg, each of us feeling relief that we would never see one another ever again. There was money in my pocket and cane at my side with the promise of a monthly disability check as I stepped on the bus for Ashville. My Army mementos were stored in a bus station locker for the duration as I had no further need of them as I had enough reminders to last me a lifetime. Once I reached the city I rented a car, bought a map, and drove towards that area where Copperhead Road lay, a place where Robert Lee called home. People are very closed mouth when outsiders come around, often turning their backs to you or mumbling some misdirection that took you out of town. Word gets around quick and I found my answer soon enough in a small coffee shop. She was a tall blond woman, young with a face that had a few premature wrinkles above her brow and a body that was use to hard work. Everyone in our company carried photographs of their parents, siblings, and girl friend or wife save me and Robert Lee. But I would have know his sister anywhere for they were close in age and close in resemblance. Bonnie Lee had appeared quickly and quietly at my side, her message was terse, delivered almost without emotion. “He’s dead, there’s nothing for you here. Best be on your way.” Before I could ask any questions she had turned and disappeared. The woman behind the counter came over with her pot of coffee and filled my cup again. “Revenuers got him three months ago.”