The Drowned ManIt was as though death was always a few feet away. In the rapid river current a strong swimmer had only a one in three chance of survival. Though the statistics were local rumor amongst the troops, we knew that a man who fell overboard was usually lost, with less chance of survival than he’d have in a fall into the open ocean. The murky brown water made search difficult, and the current carried the victim swiftly out of rescue range.
One day, as the ship entered a large open area where two rivers joined, a small boat with three soldiers embarked came alongside and matched our ship’s speed. One of the occupants steered the craft, while the other two shouted and waved their arms to bring our attention to a green clad soldier lying in the boat’s bilges. The ship was slowed and then stopped to provide assistance to countrymen in distress, in this foreign river. A litter was lowered over the side to receive the unconscious soldier, while two of his buddies clambered aboard.
The man placed in the litter was a large black soldier who had fallen into the river from a confiscated Viet Namese dugout canoe. These canoes, small and narrow, were handled deftly by the natives, but often capsized when used by U.S. troops, whose bulky bodies and heavy equipment were not suited to such tiny boats.
The drowning victim’s buddies had defied the odds and the river, and pulled him into another craft, but their efforts to revive him were to no avail. Our ship appeared to them as a haven, a solution, a place where a medical miracle would bring their friend back to life. How could they know that the ship was no more fit for the task than they were.
The man was obviously dead, a well muscled, handsome body stilled by the rushing brown water of this river far from home. Black men don’t die here, this is the wrong river. For eons of time they drowned in the Niger or the Nile, or more recently they died along the Mississippi.
Mekong! Blacks don’t even live here. The lighter skinned yellow man drowns here, not blacks. His Momma didn’t raise him to puke this foreign water the color of his skin.
“Get him down to sick bay!” What miracle can we perform there? “Where’s the doctor?, asked the soldiers. Damn these grunts? Don’t they know we are a hundred thirty men in a small ship that doesn’t rate one. “Get him to sick bay.” “Shit, we can’t get the litter through the passageway and down the ladder.” “Fuck it man, can’t you see he’s dead.” “How do you know, are you a goddamned doctor?”
Official death came in the passageway above the mess decks, pronounced by a doctor who’d come aboard from God knows where.
Soldiers don’t drown in rivers and die in the narrow passageways on Navy ships. They die in foxholes, blasted into itty bitty undetectable pieces, any movie fan could tell you that.
Why did he fall from a boat he didn’t fit in, into a river he couldn’t swim in, and die on a ship he’d never seen, a ship in a river it was never meant to be in. Dumb.
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© 2005, Alfred Dillon