512 Words

Five Minutes in Heaven

Gary Holland

The helicopter ride was free, courtesy of the US Army.

I piled into the cabin with my fellow grunts, six to a bird. We leaned back onto leaden packs, our legs dangling out the wide-open doorways. Each soldier had a big-screen front-row seat to reality. It promised the ride of a lifetime, maybe the last ride of a lifetime.

The crewchief sat lotus-like against the wall. He peered omnisciently from beneath his olive-drab helmet mumbling a private joke to the pilots through his hands-on mouthpiece. And when all were finally settled he jerked his leather-gloved thumb straight toward the ceiling, toward the high life somewhere beyond.

The rotor blades whined into overdrive, flapped and shuddered a few seconds, then pitched sharply forward. A steady vacuum sucked us skyward while the crewchief raised his hand head-high, palm to his passengers, fingers spread five-wide. "Five minutes," he mouthed. The sky ride would last five minutes.

The moment we cleared the landing zone the door gunners tilted their machine guns straight ahead, locked in an opening round, then rocked off a quick burst into the fertile green triangle below. Suddenly we were heaven high.

The treetops raced a hundred miles an hour beneath our boots. The wind cooled the earthly sweat from our faces so quickly the leftover salt crinkled and crusted around our eyes. Wide-open shirts, pack straps and boonie hats all flapped merrily in the breeze. Then the real fun began.

Roaring as low and as fast as we could we skimmed the treetops in a blur. We blew through the canyons, floated the ridgelines, free fell down the backsides to the shimmering rice paddies below. Over and over we hurdled from weightlessness to double gravity and back. We were giddy as schoolboys on a Coney Island coaster soaring dangle-foot over the secret landscapes of Vietnam. Then, without warning, the sky ride came to a halt.

Our goose had landed. The crewchief jerked his leather-gloved thumbs toward the doorways and mouthed, "Out!" We landed knee-deep in the sludge. Hell hadn't frozen over since the last time we were there. The heat and the insects were waiting to greet us.

For the next thirty days we struggled up fetid canyons, waist deep in blood-sucking leaches, clawed our way over the same ridgelines we floated over just days before, then stumbled down the same backsides by our bootstraps, exhausted, demoralized, and torn. We bitched and groaned, itched and stung, baked and burned. The dung flies ambushed by daylight, the mosquitoes assaulted by night. We ran blood and pus and sweat by the gallons. We grew abscesses the size of silver dollars. Some men fainted, some men cried, and some men vomited in the heat. When our stench was too potent to hide in the jungle, someone ordered us back for a bath.

We flew out the way we flew in. But somehow the thrill was gone. They would clean us, heal us, fatten us a bit. Then the life cycle of a grunt would begin once again: five minutes in heaven---thirty days in hell.

Copyright ©2000 Gary Holland. All Rights Reserved.

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December, 2000
Issue #68

512 Words