What I was thinking about was that I had to get up every morning and dry the clothes I had washed the night before by putting them on the oven door, to have something to wear to high school. How was I going to get the clothes for college? How was I going to get clothes for Kenny so he could stay in school? Mama had said that she'd see to it that Kenny stayed in school if I sent the money for clothes for him. (1.14)
Perry had the grades for college, but what drove him to the army instead? Good 'ol poverty. At home, not only does he not have the money to support himself, but he has to support his family, too. He needs a job that'll let him rake in the dough. And when you're fresh out of high school with no experience, your job pickings are going to be limited.
"When everybody got a bike I didn't get one 'cause there was no way we could get the money for a bike. But anything anybody got in the army, I got. You got a gun, I got a gun. You got boots, I got boots. You eat this lousy-ass chip beef on toast, guess what I eat?"
"Lousy-ass chip beef on toast," I said. (2.24-25)
Peewee likes at least one part of being in the army: it puts everyone on an even playing field, at least more or less. Which kind of gives you an idea of what Peewee's life was like before the army. His standards (chip beef?) are not very high.
"You know what I hope?" Lobel asked. "I hope I get killed over here so he has to fit that s*** between his vodka martinis." (9.84)
Lobel's different from the other guys in his platoon because he doesn't come from a working-class background. For his dad, vodka martinis—which are a step up from a can of Budweiser, as far as your adult beverages are concerned—are the norm. Kind of evokes the high life. But here's a secret: that doesn't necessarily mean a happy life. Deep, huh?
I answered him right away. I told him that he would do just fine in basketball. I put twenty dollars in the letter for him.
It was good having Kenny need me. I almost cried as I thought about him. It had been tough on me not being able to go to college, but things had been tough on him, too. In a neighborhood where you had to be tough just to get to the store with money for a loaf of bread, Kenny wasn't tough at all. (9.86-87)
Look at Perry, being a good older brother. He's the kind of guy who wants to help his kid brother, even though he went through the same problems as a kid, and never had anyone to help him. That's the sort of "show, not tell" moment to prove that Perry may have his flaws, but he's pretty swell overall.
"This reminds me of a Harlem night," I said. "Sometimes the little apartment we lived in would be so hot you couldn't sleep for days." (12.35)
Perry probably has more he can relate to in Vietnam than someone like Lobel does, just because Perry grew up poor and had less modern luxuries than the richer guys in the army. It's one of those silver lining kind of things.
I was glad to see that An Linh was all right. It was what it was getting to be: hoping that what you liked, what you had seen before, remained whole.
I didn't have anything to give An Linh, so I gave her a dollar. I knew there wasn't much she could do with it in the boonies, but I gave it to her anyway. As I left she followed me with her eyes, and I wonder what she saw. (14.127-128)
Perry's gift of a dollar to An Linh a dollar is more symbolic than practical, but it still has value to them both. Perry saves his money carefully to send what he can to his family, so a dollar isn't nothing to him. An Linh can't exactly use an American dollar in Vietnam, but she gets that the gift is more making a connection than making a profit. Moments of humanity in wartime are one of those precious things money can't buy.
"Like a trip to friggin' hell," Monaco said.
"No, man, this is like the projects in Chicago," Peewee said. "The police can't protect your ass from the muggers and s***, and the muggers don't protect your ass from the police." (14.120-121)
Because Peewee has lived in poverty, he gets what the Vietnamese villagers are going through more than the other soldiers do. They're basically stuck in the crossfire of gang warfare. Kind of a reminder that huge, violent problems aren't limited to an official war zone—they're happening back at home, too. It's a bit of a downer.
I won thirty dollars in the football pool. I had Green Bay and a point total of forty-eight, which was closer than anybody else. I sent the money to Mama. (15.84)
Perry can't even keep his betting winnings. Family first—that's his motto. At least he gets the pride of predicting the football win.
I got a letter from Kenny, too. He said he had a part-time job working at Kelly's Drugs on the corner of Lenox and 118th Street. For some reason I felt so proud of him, that he would do that. I just hoped Mama was letting him keep all the money he made. (17.144)
Here's yet another example of how Perry wants a better life for his brother than what he has. He sends all his money home, but he wants Kenny to be able to keep his earnings. Now that's generosity.
"I got a coin back home," he said. "You go in my room and look in the back of the closet on the floor. You find a sneaker there and in the sneaker there's a sock with some stuff in it. Most of the stuff ain't worth nothing, but that coin is real old." (18.53)
One coin, however rare, is hardly big money, but this still shows how much Peewee cares about Perry. He doesn't have much, but he wants to give Perry his most valuable thing if he dies. Like the dollar with An Linh, money here is about symbolizing friendship even more than it's about being able to buy things.
My plans, maybe just my dreams really, had been to go to college, and to write like James Baldwin. All the other guys in the neighborhood thought I was going to college. I wasn't, and the army was the place I was going to get away from all the questions. (1.19)
Not being able to go to college—and having to admit that to everyone—definitely hurts Perry's pride. He doesn't want anyone to think less of him, so he goes off to risk his life so he doesn't have to talk about it. Don't try this at home, kids.
"My father's a colonel," Jenkins said. "He wanted me to be infantry. He's got this thing, he calls it his game plan. First I volunteer for the army, then I volunteer for infantry and take advanced individual training in infantry. I serve my time over here, then I go to Officers Candidate School." (3.42)
It doesn't seem like Jenkins is too into this game plan. At no point does he say that it's his: he's living out his dad's dream. At least, until he dies it. Now that's a bummer.
As I ran around that day I could hear Mrs. Liebow's words echo in my ears. "You have to get out of yourself, Perry," she had said. "You're too young to be an observer in your own life." (3.112-113)
Perry has a tendency to watch what's going on around him—to think about it instead of engaging with it. Which could be bad for his career someday. What if he'd rather imagine himself doing great things instead of actually going after them? Hm, sounds like the makings of a famous author, worthy to be Shmooped by millions.
My mind shot ahead. What would I do when I got out? I had read some stuff in Stars and Stripes about Congress expanding the GI Bill. The paper said it didn't look too hopeful. (8.30)
Perry is still worried about having enough money to go to college. At that time, the GI Bill gave veterans a monthly stipend—but would it be enough to cover tuition?
"You know the only thing I'm good at?"
"M-60 machine gun. You know anybody out in the World need a good machine gunner?" (8.27-29)
It's not like Scotty really wants to shoot machine guns all his life. He just doesn't know what he'll do next. The skills you learn in wartime won't necessarily translate to a good job back at home. Still, probably good that machine gunners aren't in high demand in every corner store back home.
The counselor, a short, red-haired woman, with blue eyes that bulged slightly from a thin face, had asked me what I wanted to do in life. "I'd like to be a philosopher," I had said. She had started laughing and apologizing at the same time. It was simply not the kind of thing, she explained, that she had expected. I was hurt. I didn't even know what a philosopher did for sure, but her laughing messed me up. After that I never told anyone I wanted to be a philosopher again, or even a writer. I started telling people in school that I wanted to work on a newspaper. Around the block I told people that I either wanted to play ball or teach. (9.96-99)
Sounds like this guidance counselor needed a guidance counselor to tell her not to work with high school kids. It's clear that Perry's self-esteem really took a hit here. But why did his guidance counselor laugh? Could it have to do with the color of Perry's skin? Maybe—Myers does go out of his way to describe her physically, showing that she's white. Or maybe she just got philosophers confused with stand-up comedians.
The idea of a bookstore is so comforting to me, Lois. I have this vision of me working behind the counter and you taking care of the baby in the back. Better yet, you work at the counter and I'll take care of the baby. Have you considered Karen as a name if it's a girl? It's your mother's name, and I like it. (11.11)
For Carroll, going to his happy place meant the polar opposite environment of a battlefield: a bookstore. He had planned a future that was all comfort and family, partly to get away from his present.
People were not supposed to be made like that. People were not supposed to be twisted bone and tubes that popped out at crazy kid's-toy angles. People were supposed to be sitting and talking and doing. Yes, doing. (18.84)
Know what's the opposite of doing? Observing. Perry is seeing horrific things, but they might just have given him more appreciation for his life. Maybe he'll go after his dreams when he leaves the army after all.
I wished I had a wife and kids. I mean I really wished I had a wife and kids, somebody somewhere that loved me in a way I could look forward to going back to the World to. (20.61)
Part of Perry's problem is when he looks at the future, he comes up blank. He has no idea what he'll do for a job after the army, and he has no idea how changed he'll be from the war. He's also a little lonely, don't you think?
Monaco said he would come by in the morning before his plane left and say good-bye. He didn't. He left a note at the desk, and Celia gave it to me. It said that I had to wear a ring at his wedding. (23.60)
Monaco has to go back into combat, while Perry and Peewee get to go home. Sucks for Monaco. Maybe he didn't stop by to say goodbye because it would be too painful. But don't shed too many tears for this guy: the note about his wedding tells them that he's still making plans. He intends to survive.
"The way I figure it, we got to stick together over here." He had three rings on the hand he waved in the air. "I can't trust no whitey to watch my back when the deal goes down." (2.29)
This unnamed guy Perry and Peewee meet is a little intense, what with wanting them to swear a blood oath and everything. But his wariness of white people doesn't come from nowhere. Perry and Peewee don't know it yet, but they're going to face prejudiced soldiers (::cough::Brunner::cough::) later during their time in Vietnam, and they're no strangers to discrimination having grown up in segregated America. Blood may be taking it a bit far, but racism is real and dangerous in this book.
"These gooks will probably be having supper with the VIETCONG by the time we sit down to chow," Brunner said.
"How come when you say 'gooks' it sounds like 'n*****' to me?" Johnson asked. (4.117-118)
Johnson has a point. Both words are racist slurs that have origins in American imperialism. And they're both not very polite.
"That is a fag solution, only capable of coming from the mind of a fag," Brunner said.
"Hey Corporal," Lobel got up on one elbow. "Just because I don't have my serial number tattooed on my genitals does not mean I'm a fag." (4.58-59)
Back home the World seemed to be splitting up between people who wanted to make love and people who wanted to tear the cities down. A lot of it was blacks against whites, and we didn't talk about that too much, but we felt it. Over the summer a kid in Harlem had been killed by a white police officer and there had been some riots. I told Mama in a letter to tell Kenny to be careful. Sometimes he had a fresh mouth, and I didn't want him hurt. (13.14-15)
As if Perry doesn't have enough to worry about in Vietnam, he also has to worry about his family getting caught in the crossfire of a race riot back at home. Yikes. Race riots were usually sparked by some incident of prejudice, and sometimes included violence that could be random and cruel. Definitely a good day to stay indoors.
"You know, I never thought much about black people before I got into the army. I don't think I was prejudiced or anything—I just didn't think much about black people."
"Well, we're here," I said. (14.67-68)
Wow. Gearhart's really not holding back. At least what he's saying is coming from a place of remorse. He feels truly guilty for accidentally setting off the flare that gave away their position and caused the death of Turner, a black man. Not the greatest cause for thinking through your values, but at least he's getting there.
Johnson outlined the problem. "Me, Peewee, Perry, and Monaco is the n*****s of this outfit," he said. "We got to keep a serious watch on our asses."
I believed him. Monaco was Italian, but he was the same as the black guys in Dongan's eyes. Maybe because he got along with us so well, I don't know. (17.92-93)
Looks like Dongan's prejudice extends beyond black people. Italian Americans also faced prejudice in the 1960s. That, plus being friends with the black members of the platoon, might as well add up to a death sentence, they worry.
"What the f*** does that mean?" Peewee asked. "We get a Cong, we supposed to kill his ass twice?"
"No, monkey face, it means that we're supposed to kill as many of these gooks as we can," Brunner said.
"You going to 'monkey face' your way right to Arlington Cemetery," Peewee said. (17.138-140)
Brunner's always said racist things, but do you think he would have called Peewee "monkey face" earlier in the book? Now that they have a possibly racist commander (Dongan), Brunner seems to be getting worse. Don't encourage him.
"You guys think we're going to have a race problem over here?" Lobel asked.
"Not as long as everybody over here got them a gun," Peewee said.
Lobel stood up. "Well, just in case we do," he said. "I want you to know you got the Jew on your side." (17.111-113)
Dongan didn't invite Lobel for a beer because he thought he might be gay. But whether he is or not, the reason that Lobel identifies with the black men in his platoon is his Jewish heritage. When it comes to the white members of his platoon, that makes Lobel feel more like an outsider than part of the group, so he buddies up with the other outsiders. At least they've got each other.
When he talked about Dongan, I listened.
"First thing he done was to sit down and have him a beer with Brunner, then he had him a beer with Walowick. He don't like Lobel because he think Lobel's a faggot. He even ask me if he was a faggot." (18.28-29)
Once again, Lobel's being left on the outside—this time because of Dongan's homophobia.
"Johnson asked him to his damn face," Peewee said. "He asked him how come he put a brother on point and another brother in the damn rear with the sixty?"
I looked at Monaco, he looked back at me.
"What did he say?"
"Dongan—that's his name—" Peewee said, "he said he do what he think he should do and it ain't for Johnson to tell him what to do." (17.38-41)
Dongan puts the black men in the most vulnerable positions in their formation. In other words, if the group is fired at, Johnson and Peewee are the most likely to die. Thanks a lot, Dongan.
I was scared. My mouth was going dry and I could see that Peewee was scared, too. Jenkins was crying. It made me feel a little better to see him crying like that. (2.134)
For being in this serious of freakout mode, the guys must be out for their first battle, right? Not even. They're just on the flight to their first assignment in Chu Lai, and the war's already starting to feel real. Considering what they'll be up against, no wonder Perry, Peewee, and Jenkins are scared.
The neat pile of body bags was waiting for the rest of us. There were enough there—the supply clerk had reached for the top one without even looking—to know that they expected that many of us would be going home in them. (4.14)
Just in case you were starting to calm down, here's a great reason to stay terrified. Sure, Perry knew that, in theory, he could die in combat, but seeing all those body bags waiting to be filled definitely doesn't exactly feel like a good sign. It's a reminder of how casual war has become for some people: the clerk isn't even thinking about the actual people who could fill those bags. Not exactly good for morale.
We looked for the wounded. They were all over the place. The medics were so busy they were just tagging guys. The ones they thought they could save they worked on, the others they marked their wounds down. One kid, the angry stain of blood on his T-shirt growing with every breath, watched calmly as the medic wrote up the tag. (8.74)
This is a sad scene for a lot of reasons. First, this is when the platoon accidentally shot at other Americans. Maybe the saddest thing is the detail of medics tagging men who they know will die, while the not-quite-dead-yet men just watch them helplessly. There's no way to make a positive out of that.
The guys that our artillery blew away didn't have a reason to die. They hadn't been facing the enemy. They just died because someone else was scared, maybe careless. They died because they were in Nam, where being scared made you do things you would regret later. We were killing our brothers, ourselves. (8.108)
Human error is a part of war, and sometimes it means the wrong side gets killed. It's not easy to accept for Perry, but he's learning that there's a lot that's unfair about war.
I noticed that lately there were things I would let myself think about, and things I wouldn't. But every once in a while things would come into my mind, not like a thought but like a picture, and I felt a little strange about that. (9.18)
So, seeing memories like they're pictures? Not a good sign. It's like Perry can't handle the memories as they are, so his brain turns them into still images so they're easier to deal with. It's like photography, except in your head and definitely a sign of trauma.
We spent another day lying around. It seemed to be what the war was about. Hours of boredom, seconds of terror. (11.24)
The combat part is pretty scary, don't get us wrong, and Perry's definitely not clamoring to see more innocent people die around him. But being bored sucks too, even if it sucks less than fighting for your life. Literary note: hours of boredom don't exactly make for a fascinating story, so it's impressive that Walter Dean Myers managed to write about both sides of being at war.
I had gone through basic training just fine until the end when we had to go under live fire. The noises shook you, made you want to stop and hide.
Now it was different. Now the sound swelled in my consciousness like a dull headache. It kept coming and coming, day and night. Sometimes I felt as if the sounds were inside me somehow. And there were the times, I never wanted to mention them to anyone else, that I heard the sounds at night when it was very quiet, and no one else heard them. (13.32-33)
Now this is definitely a sign of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is an affliction a lot of soldiers suffer from, sometimes long after they're in combat. It's possible that Perry will sometimes hear bombing and gunfire even if he survives and returns to the US. Not fun.
The wounded man screamed for a while, then begged for a while, then went back to screaming. We turned away from him, tried to shut him out of our minds. (13.138)
It might seem cruel of the other soldiers to turn away from a wounded man and let him die alone, but to them, it's survival. They don't want to look at what could be their future, because that might make them completely break down. Yeesh.
I thought about what Peewee had said. That I had better think about killing the Congs before they killed me. That had better be my reason, he had said, until I got back to the World. Maybe it was right. But it meant being some other person than I was when I got to Nam. Maybe that was what I had to be. Someone else. (16.128)
Perry has been more or less driving himself crazy trying to figure out whether killing Vietcong soldiers is the right thing to do. But here's the dilemma: he can't worry too much without being in danger of getting killed himself. Maybe he's right that in war, you have to be a different version of yourself.
At his feet the soldier, still alive, was moaning in pain. I looked and saw that they had cut his finger off. I looked up into the face of the Cong soldier. He was young, no more than a teenager. He looked scared and tired, same as me. I squeezed the trigger of the sixteen and watched him hurtle backward.
Then I sat down on the ground to rest. (18.172-173)
Looks like Perry's succeeded in his goal of becoming some other person while he's at war: he recognizes himself in an enemy, and still kills him. Um, congrats?
"…Captain Stewart is the one eligible."
"Eligible for what?"
"For major," Sergeant Simpson said. "And his best chance of making it is while he over here. His tour is up the fifteenth day of March."
"That's his problem," Peewee said.
"If he don't pick up his body count soon," Sergeant Simpson started to get up, "It's going to be your problem." (4.136-140)
Captain Stewart's promotion depends, at least partially, on how many Vietcong soldiers his men kill. Morbid, huh? Basically, he'll get rewarded for putting his men into situations where they could do the most killing. Those situations aren't exactly the safest, that's for sure.
Later Monaco heard from Sergeant Simpson that Captain Stewart got us out of it.
"You can't get a body count on a pacification run," Monaco said. (9.75-76)
Stewart is after one thing: body count. That might mean more free time for the platoon in the short term, but not going on pacification missions also means they'll only see Vietnamese in one way: as the enemy.
That afternoon, orders came through for Brunner and Lobel to be promoted to sergeant, and everybody else in the squad to be moved up to corporal. I didn't even know that Lobel had been a corporal. The word was that everybody was getting short on people. (11.96)
Considering what they've been through, the soldiers probably deserve their promotions. But really, should that be the reason soldiers should have gotten promoted? Because there aren't enough of them? Not the best system. Also, being short on people means lots of deaths. Not exactly reassuring to all the new sergeants and corporals.
Captain Stewart came around to check for casualties. He started talking about how we had to be more aggressive, how we had to go out to get the Vietcong.
"We got to keep them up a few nights," he said. He patted Sergeant Simpson on the shoulder.
When he left I could see that Sergeant Simpson didn't look good.
"You okay, Sarge?" I asked.
"That man bucking for major real bad," he said. "He gonna get somebody killed before he makes it." (12.29-33)
Sergeant Simpson's in a tough position. He's caught in the middle: above the other men in the platoon, but not high enough up the ladder to decide what missions they go on. Maybe he also doesn't like getting patted on the shoulder.
What Brew said about not having the nerve to go to Canada shook me. Here he was in Nam, getting shot at every day, afraid of every noise, every step, and yet he had been afraid of going to Canada. It shook me because I knew what he meant. Sometimes standing alone seemed to be the hardest thing in the world to do, even when being in the crowd meant you could be killed. (12.21)
If you were drafted in the '60s and chose not to go to war, the government wasn't like, "It's okay. We understand." It'd either be jail or fleeing to another country, leaving your family and community behind—maybe permanently. Perry's right that there was social pressure involved in making that decision, too. If you went to jail or ran away, how would people think of you?
"A newspaper," Walowick said. "Only thing in it is the stuff about guys burning their draft cards."
"Faggots and commies," Brunner said. "Anybody who wouldn't stand up for their country is either a faggot or a Commie."
"They're doing what they think is right," Monaco said. "Maybe they are right, who knows?"
"That's why we got four and five-man squads," Brunner said. "'Cause those jerks are home smoking dope and burning their draft cards. You get blown away because you don't have a full squad, you can thank those creeps." (12.11-14)
Brunner doesn't come off as sympathetic at first, but once he finishes his rant, his anger is understandable. In his mind, draft dodgers lead to Americans being outnumbered in combat. That anger's personal.
"We'll set up here, Sergeant." Lieutenant Gearhart's voice stiffened.
"We ain't got no cover here, sir." Sergeant Simpson looked at Gearhart.
"There's cover there," Gearhart said. He pointed to a small trench along the side of the paddy. There were thin bushes next to it. Nothing that would stop a bullet. "We'll put sandbags behind the bushes."
"You gonna get some people killed over here!"
"Sergeant, I know what I'm doing." Gearhart took a step toward Simpson. "Now deploy the men." (13.50-54)
Gearhart forces his men into a visible, dangerous position just to show that he's the one in charge. Primadonna, much?
"How many you think we got?" he asked. "I know you can't be sure, just give me a number."
I didn't know what to say. A picture of the paddies came into my mind.
"Maybe not that many, sir?"
"Maybe, but it could have been."
"It could have been, sir." (14.55-60)
This here is called picking your battles. Perry knows they didn't kill anywhere near thirty people, but also that Stewart always amps up their body count. Instead of arguing with him and making an enemy, he goes with the flow and agrees to the hypothetical thirty kills. After all, Stewart would record a high body count either way.
"He found out that Captain Stewart is volunteering Alpha Company all over the place. He asked him what he's doing that for, and Captain Stewart said that if he didn't want to fight he shouldn't have extended."
What Jamal said went down hard. We didn't mind doing our part because it had to be done, even though we always didn't have the answers to why we were doing it.
But nobody wanted to go out and risk their lives so that Stewart could make major. (15.94-96)
It's one thing to do your part in the war. It's another to volunteer all the time, everywhere. Kind of sounds like a death wish. And the worst part is, the soldiers aren't doing the volunteering themselves: they're being volunteered. There's nothing they can do about it.
"The little Viet colonel gave Stewart a direct order to take some damn hill. Stewart said he wasn't going up first and the colonel called Division.
"Now what going to happen?" Johnson asked.
"Now we going up the damn hill first," Peewee said. (18.36-38)
Here's a rare case. Stewart is actually trying to protect the lives of his soldiers by not letting them be the first exposed to an unseen enemy. Too bad it doesn't work out.
"He used to act like a holy guy or something when he first got over here. He never cursed or anything like that." Walowick was putting powder on a rash he had. "Then one day we were trying to clear a road and some guys got trapped in a ditch off to one side. We were on the other side of the road, and we could see them but we couldn't get to them. It was getting dark, and we knew they couldn't last. Charlie was throwing everything at them. Then Lieutenant Carroll just went wild and stormed across the f***ing road. We went after him. We were shooting at guys maybe three or four feet from us. We finally wasted all of them and cleared the road. He hasn't been the same since, but we all found out what kind of guy he was that day." (4.37)
Somewhere in here is the secret of Carroll's change in beliefs, but it's not clear what exactly did it. Maybe the amount of people he killed. Or how he risked more men to save some. He obviously cared about the men in the ditch, but maybe the decision to run out and shoot wasn't the smartest or most strategic, and how he felt after that changed his plans for himself.
"I got a letter from Virginia Union." A brother we called Brew sat on a footlocker next to Lieutenant Carroll. His real name was Brewster, so I could see where Brew came from. "They said I can probably get into the theology school there but they can't accept me formally until six months before my admission date." (4.26)
Brew might be the most religious guy in the platoon. He plans to go to school to become a preacher after he's done his time in Vietnam. He's so excited about it he's trying to get his ducks in a row way, way in advance.
"You know"—Lieutenant Carroll had spread all the extra first aid packs on the floor in front of him— "my brother went to theology school and I almost followed him."
"You can still go," a guy called Walowick said from his bunk. "It's good for a priest to be older."
"I might have too many doubts, now," Lieutenant Carroll said.
"If you turn to God, He'll take away your doubts," Brew said.
"I don't have doubts about God," Lieutenant Carroll said. "I'm just not sure who I am anymore." (4.30-34)
Here's a snapshot of the difference in Carroll and Brew's beliefs. They both believe in God, but Carroll doubts himself. Maybe he feels like he'd be a hypocrite for leading people spiritually. Maybe he thinks there's some bad in him. Maybe he's seen too much death and suffering—and also participated in it.
"We get back to the base, remind me to memorize a prayer."
"I know one," Peewee said.
"What is it?"
"Flying into combat, 'bout to have a fit, Lord, if you listenin', Please get me out of this s***!" (5.91-96)
If Perry isn't exactly religious, Peewee definitely isn't. Perry may want to pray but Peewee keeps calm by pulling out the jokes. If religion is one form of comfort, joking is another.
"You pray a lot when you in the World?" I asked him.
"Yeah, I prayed a lot," Brew said. "But, man, I didn't pray nowhere near as hard." (8.113-114)
Brew was always religious, but coming close to death definitely made him value his life more, and pray harder in response. Maybe Peewee wasn't around to tell him a joke.
"I just don't want to pray."
"Figure you don't want to make your peace if you're not ready to die?"
I smiled. I had to smile. He was right and he knew it. "Something like that."
"I know how you feel," he said. "I'm not quite ready to die either." (17.65-68)
The priest who visits, Father Santora, is pretty sympathetic of the regular, non-priest soldiers. Instead of acting like he's holier than Perry, he relates to him by talking about his own fears and how he also doesn't want to die. Definitely more relatable than "pray or else."
"If I pray with you, will it keep me alive?" I asked.
"What will it do for me?"
"I don't know," he said. "I think it can be comforting at times." (17.74-77)
If Father Santora had started talking to Perry about his eternal soul or damnation, do you think that strategy would have been more or less effective than his simple, honest approach?
We told him some of the things that had happened to us. Then he prayed, asking God to take care of us and our loved ones, things like that. I really appreciated it. (17.82)
It's not the general praying that Perry appreciates: it's that Father Santora really listens, and reassures the guys about themselves and also about the people they care about. You could look at it as Perry coming around to religion, or as just the right mood boost at the right time. Like mac and cheese, but comfort prayer instead of comfort food.
It was good. The chaplain said nice things. He asked God to bless all the guys that had been killed and wounded, and to protect all of us. We sang a hymn and ended the services holding hands and saying the Twenty-third Psalm. It made me feel good. (21.36)
Good. Nice. Good. Simple as these short sentences and the feelings in them are, this is one of the few times Perry expresses that kind of feeling. Prayer helps him feel calm in the frenzy of war, and "feeling good" is good enough for him.
"My mother's a Baptist," I said. "She wouldn't go to a mojo lady."
"My mama's a Baptist, too, but she what you call a sore-feet Baptist. Your feets get sore enough, those mojo ladies start looking pretty good." (5.15-16)
Who doesn't need a foot rub from time to time, mojo or no mojo? Peewee's point is that your beliefs get more flexible depending on your need, and it actually applies to Perry. The more scared he gets in the book, the more he relies on religion for comfort. Too bad he didn't have a mojo lady nearby.
The village stunk. You could smell it as you got near. There were huts laid out about fifteen meters from each other. Some were fairly large. There were people in the village walking around, some were building a pen of some kind. Like the guys had told us, they were either very young or very old. (4.78)
The first Vietnamese village Perry visits is a bit of a shock to him. First, theres's the stink. No getting used to that. Then there's the fact that all the men of fighting age are away at war. It's not exactly painting a picture of harmonious village life.
The people were the same. Small, withered women, skin creased over onto itself; dark, life-weary eyes that had seen everything. (9.34)
This isn't exactly the most flattering picture of Vietnamese women. Why do you think they look that way to Perry? Could it be the lack of medical care they have access to? Or the lack of anti-aging beauty products—like, you know, sunscreen? How about the lack of a calm, comfy lifestyle that isn't shaped by violence, war, and suffering?
That's how we got around, following the hills and streams mostly. That was how we got around, following the hills and streams and paddies. Sometimes there would be a plantation that we would use as a reference, or a field of rice paddies. (9.20)
A few decades ago if you mentioned Vietnam people would immediately think war. Today, your first thought just might be slurping pho noodles. Rice (which pho is made out of) is a big deal in Vietnam: it's the world's second largest exporter of rice. So it makes sense that rice paddies are all over this book. Head over to Images to see what they look like. And then head to a pho restaurant to get your slurp on.
We slept in hooches that were surrounded by sandbags. There were vents on both ends, and sometimes they worked. Usually, though, the hooches were hot as anything. We had put straw and leaves on the roof of our hooch back at the base to keep the sun from baking us, but it didn't help that much. The huts that the Vietnamese lived in were made on bamboo frames and covered with woven bamboo slats and dried flat leaves. The joints weren't nailed. They were notched and tied with either rope or wire. Some of the huts had slats that could be adjusted to let the light in. They were cool enough inside, especially the ones with the high ceilings. (9.53)
In a game of Which Would You Rather, the Vietnamese hut would always win over the American-designed hooch. The huts have centuries of learning how to design for their native climate on their side. Sure, if you throw a luxury condo into the game, it might be a tougher choice between the hut and built-in air-conditioning.
I loaded another clip, and started firing. It was a hamlet, the same thatched roofs, the same smell of burnt bamboo. We fired into the village, trying to chop down anything we could see. (18.160)
It's a little messed up that Perry's platoon once went into hamlets for "pacification" missions, and now they're doing this. They've seen the inside of villages, which makes it feel all the worse when they fire on them. They know that if they hit villagers, they are either young or elderly, and that makes most of them feel pretty bad. The smell of burning bamboo doesn't help either.
The rice paddy seemed forever. The water was up past my ankles, and the stink was something else. (18.74)
Rice paddies: definitely not designed for wartime comfort. But imagine all the pho…
There were stands of trees every hundred yards or so along the rice paddies leading to the hill. We hit the first stand and fought from tree to tree. (18.131)
The trees, on the other hand, make for good cover. Without them, Perry and his fellow soldiers would be easy targets for enemy shooters. Thanks, trees.
Problem. It was nearly dark. The sides of the stream were clear for twenty to forty meters on both sides. On the side of the stream that we were on, away from the ridge, there was a rice paddy that we had to cross. We had passed it coming, but going back was another thing. They knew we were there now, knew we were headed back. If we got Congs on the ridge when we were passing the paddies, it would be hard going. (21.101)
We don't mean to oversell our "Images" section, but you definitely need to get a look at a picture of a rice paddy to understand why it was hard to cross them. Basically, these guys are playing Oregon Trail: Vietnam War edition.
I sucked in the fresh air as hard as I could. The day was clear, the sky brilliant. There were fields of rice paddies before us and in one of them a Vietnamese farmer stood. He turned toward us, still kneeling in the knee-deep water. Maybe it was his son in the hole. He stood and Peewee lifted his rifle. He ducked down into the water again. (22.119)
Hey, notice how it's described as a clear, brilliant day? No rain, for once? Maybe it's a sign of new hope for Perry and Peewee, that they might make it after all. Or maybe it's meant to contrast with the horror of what they just did—strangle an enemy soldier and leave him in a snake hole. Either way, with this scene you almost get a clear view of the openness and warmth of a Vietnamese farmer's life. But of course, as in the rest of the book, the War gets in the way.
"All their men is either in the VIETCONG army or the ARVNs. The ARVNs is the South Vietnamese army, and they suppose to be on our side. The VIETCONG is the enemy. This is like the Civil War," Simpson said. "Sometimes one brother go to the VIETCONG and the other brother go to the ARVN. After a while the brother who fighting with the VIETCONG either gonna get killed or want to leave and join the ARVN." (4.79)
The American Civil War is a pretty good comparison, though it's also a sad one. It shows Perry that the war isn't just tough on the out-of-towners; when the Vietnamese soldiers fight each other, they're sometimes fighting against their own family.
I saw Brunner pocket a small statue from one of the huts. I told him about it and he gave me the finger.
"Maybe you'll be a better dude when you come back in your next life," I said. "Who knows, cockroaches might be in by then."
He took a step toward me, and Johnson—I hadn't seen him nearby—stepped next to me. Brunner looked at Johnson, then turned on his heel and walked away.
"He ain't spit," Johnson said. (9.44)
Johnson's like the silent protector. He's such a big guy that he just has to stand next to Perry to send a message. But he doesn't have to do it. He sees protecting the other black men in his platoon as part of his job—but something deeper than a job, too.
At the camp Sergeant Simpson asked me to write a letter to Lieutenant Carroll's family. I said I couldn't do it, and he asked me why.
"I just can't," I said.
"If he was laying out in the boonies, and he was calling to you needing your help, what would you do?"
"He's not laying out in the boonies," I said.
"Yeah, man, he is," Simpson said. "He just in too deep to get out." (11.4-8)
Carroll is dead, so there's not much actual calling out for help happening here. But Simpson is making sure what he would want is getting carried out, including a letter of condolence to his wife, and a well written one at that. That means getting the best writer in the platoon to do the job, even though there's the extra step of Perry feeling too upset to do it. Writing the letter will mean admitting that Carroll is gone, and it takes knowing he's helping out Carroll to help Perry over that hurdle.
I had to get my mind off of Lieutenant Carroll. The guys in the squad hung out together after we got back to the camp. The conversation was quiet, almost reverent. (11.22)
The guys in the platoon don't always know how to mourn their lost comrades, but they do their best. Even little things like keeping their conversation solemn helps them show their respect.
I started crying, and Peewee got up and came to my bunk. He put his arms around me and held me until we both fell asleep. (14.184)
We could make a joke about Perry and Peewee's bromance here, but what with Perry all weepy it doesn't seem like quite the right moment. So the fact is: when Perry's at his worst, Peewee gets it and is there for him. What better comfort is there than a good snuggle?
We went over to where Monaco was squatting with a bottle of soda. Monaco looked up, then he stood and threw both arms around me and hugged me. It really touched me. I thought I was going to cry.
"I'm sorry you're back," he said. "But I'm real glad to see you, man. Real glad." (17.24-25)
Last time Monaco saw Perry, Perry was wounded. Monaco's too happy that Perry is okay to act tough. Cute, right?
"What did you say?"
"I didn't say nothing," Johnson said. "I don't talk that s***. A man in Nam fighting by my side is a man fighting by my side. I don't care what he doing in bed." (18.30-31)
Johnson's absolutely the guy you want on your side. To him, loyalty is simple. Whatever his views about gay people, he puts his fellow soldiers first, and he won't talk badly about the people fighting by his side.
Peewee put his hand on my wrist.
"What is it?" I whispered.
"Nothing," he whispered back.
He kept his hand on my wrist. I moved my hand and took his. We held hands in the darkness. (22.21-24)
Peewee and Perry are going through the most terrifying night of their lives. They're stranded from the rest of their platoon, outnumbered and hiding from the enemy. The silver lining: they're in it together. And when you're in a hole in the ground, having your best bud with you can make all the difference.
I tried to get the possibilities straight in my mind. Maybe the squad had called in reinforcements. No way they overran the squad. No way. You didn't overrun Johnson. Johnson was the man. Johnson would kick some ass. Him and his sixty would sing. (22.25)
Perry's admiration for Johnson is so high that he can't imagine him being killed. If the war has taught Perry anything, it's that no soldier's indestructible, no matter how good. Still, he just can't imagine a fighter like Johnson biting the dust.
I was telling him about the wonders of Harlem when I noticed he was shaking. I asked if his stomach was bothering him, and he said no, that he just couldn't believe he was out of the Nam. The stewardess came over and offered us Cokes. I think she was embarrassed that we were holding hands. (23.104)
When Peewee and Perry fly out of Vietnam together, they keep getting hit with the unreal feeling that they're actually leaving. The fact that they're holding hands, just like they did on the night they spent in a hole thinking they were going to die, shows that going back to the World is almost as terrifying as wartime, in its own way. But at least they can help each other through it.
He was crying again. "I been sitting here trying to think of something to say about… you know… you and Peewee saving my life and all…."
"No big deal, man," I said. "We all got lucky."
"No, I was dead, Perry. I was actually sitting there with that Cong gun right on my ass and I was dead. You know, when it went down, when you and Peewee opened up on the gun, it was like I was brought back to life." (23.18-20)
Friendship is too weak a word for the relationship soldiers in Perry's platoon have. Perry and Peewee saved Monaco's life. That's more than a friendship. Especially when you bring life-saving into the picture.