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  • They came on air-conditioned, sterilized, commercial airliners replete with crews of stewardesses, pillows, blankets, in flight movies, the occasional joint, etc. But after their arrival there were no such luxuries. At the air base in Da Nang, jeeps, trucks and helicopters hustled and bustled in the red dust stressing a gravity that the young men could not possibly understand at the moment. The “boot”, the new guy, hadn’t seen red dust like that since one time when he had driven through Oklahoma. The heat and humidity made the young men sweat and that created resting places for the dust.
    The new Marines stayed there in Da Nang in temporary quarters for 2 or 3 days until they could be assigned to their permanent units. During one of the daily formations a captain called the name of a thin young Marine, and told him he had been assigned to “One-One”: First Battalion, First Marine Regiment, First Marine Division. “They’re up at The Fortress,” the captain added, “The Marines there have been under siege for a month or more. They need reinforcements.”
    “What the #&@’s The Fortress?” the Marine asked himself, but a corporal standing next to him heard, and said, “Jesus #&@-in’ H. Christ, you new boots don’t know shit from Shinola. The Fortress is Con Thien. It’s a combat base up on the DMZ and the Marines up there have been in the shit, taking incoming and casualties like nobody’s ever seen before. They’re surrounded by NVA divisions.”
    The Marine was told it would be up to him to find a way to join up with his unit, so after trying half-heartedly for a few days he finally managed to hitch a ride on a supply convoy. He was told to ride in the large open bed of a 6-by truck and his weapon was to be a large .50 caliber machine gun mounted on the cab. He thought he was actually looking forward to firing it.
    The convoy took a road that didn’t deserve the name it was given: Highway 1. It was a thin road, almost devoid of asphalt, and they followed it up the coast toward the DMZ. The road itself snaked through lush, tropical scenery that was broken only by very steep hills that rose abruptly from the plain, but this far north there were grasslands, none of the jungle he had been expecting. To the boot, it was just a long ribbon of red, dusty road, no bigger than many country roads he had driven on in the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas.
    The convoy continued along the road and the big trucks were lumbering down a gentle slope into a broad valley. That was when the young Marine noticed a number of small white puffs of smoke ahead of them on either side of the road. He heard a small sergeant next to him say, “Shit, they’re bracketing us. They’ll walk the rounds towards the road and we’ll drive right into them.”
    The explosions got louder and the trucks raced faster as they hurled down into the valley and toward that lethal rain. The young man was trying to hold on to the machine gun, keep his head down, and see what was going on all at the same time. All of his senses were straining and the noise grew more and more intense, even deafening as the trucks full of men and supplies approached the cloud formed by the smoke from the explosions mingling with the red dust thrown into the air by the lead trucks in the convoy.
    Just as the young Marine’s truck was disappearing into the cloud, the short sergeant did a very strange thing. He raised his rifle into the air, and looking just like a Mexican bandit in the movies shouted, “#&@ it! Let’s get some!!!” By that time, the young Marine had become completely disoriented by the blasts, the sickening smell of cordite and the dust. It was surreal, and it was all he could do to hold on to the machine gun and ride blind and deaf into the maelstrom.
    After an interminable amount of time in the sensory deprivation chamber that was the noise-cloud, they came out of it and were leaving the barrage behind them. Amazingly, none of the trucks had been hit, and no one was injured. They climbed out of the valley, their bodies vibrating with the trucks; alive. The wind blew the red dust from their green fatigues as they continued along the route toward the place called Con Thien.
    The young Marine saw and experienced far, far worse over his next 13 months in Viet Nam, but he never forgot that first experience, never forgot that dust, not even in the midst of the monsoon rains. There was something about that dust and that first brush with combat that made him old before his time; made him understand that he was old at the childish age of 19, that he was old before he was old enough to drink, that he was old before he was old enough to vote. That first experience made him remember he was already old enough to die. It made him remember a passage from the bible that he had heard read at funerals: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
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