The Body

The war was gone for a time and there was a stillness, with only the steady swift movement of the brown water as it rushed from Cambodia to the sea more than hundred miles down river. It was Sunday, a day of “stand down”, a respite from the war, a day’s length of return to sanity. All fighting had ceased there were no explosions reverberating from the countryside, no echoes of death.

Smoke had disappeared from the points on the horizon where for several days five cities could be seen burning in the aftermath of battle. There was an unspoken agreement between the adversaries to cease killing each other, to breathe again.

Ships of the “Brown Water Navy” were anchored in a wide lake area at the junction of several Mekong tributaries. On the ships, sailors in blue work clothes and soldiers in green combat fatigues sunbathed, wrote letters, forgot the war, remembered home, rested mind and body.

The broad flatland that is the Mekong Delta was visible for forty miles, when viewed from the heights of the ship’s super-structures. A maze of rivers, streams, and canals comprising a vast and wondrous transportation and communication system stretched chart-like in shades of green and brown. Far in the distance the mountains of Cambodia and the Central Highlands interrupted their view, giving testament to the expanse of the country and the extent of the conflict.

The body came into view from upstream. It was black, very black. It lay on its back on a tangled floating island of green vines. Brown water of the Song Tiang Giang moved the gnarled mass and its unknown passenger down river at a speed of five knots, the river current.

On entering the wide area of the anchorage the river slowed, as if to ensure that we on the ships would see the ebon form resting unnaturally on the floating bier. Passing each ship, the black Ahab seemed to beckon, urging us to some unknown task.

We peered in wonder, fear, and in some annoyance at this intruder into our day of peace.

Was the large corpse a white man blackened by the sun? A black man, dead in the wrong river? The Nile, the Niger and the Mississippi were traditional places of unjust death for blacks. Or was it an Asian bloated by death to our size? To some views he was a “white guy”, others a “brother” and to others a “fuckin’ VC”.

He remained at a distance to confound our sight, confuse our minds and continue the mystery.

Each ship in turn signaled the Flagship, reporting the visitor. Several volunteered to send a boat for retrieval. It was a human body, and not to be ignored.

The old timers of the crew were sure that it was a trap. That the body had been set upon the green islet and booby trapped by the Viet Cong. A cruel but not uncommon trick with a new twist, floating it by us to disturb our brief rest.

Cautions were sent from the Flagship to stand clear of the body, it would be checked for anti-personnel mines, booby traps and if possible recovered for identification and burial. Hours passed, during which staff officers on the Flagship hoped that he would continue his funereal journey downriver and become someone else’s problem. But the incoming ocean tide had stemmed the current. The body lingered. The river had played a trick on us, the body in its floral bed stopped and lay near the anchored squadron. Embarrassing and irritating hours passed until finally a small boat put out from the Flagship, traveled the mile or so to the visitor, slowed uncertainly and circled at a distance to investigate. After a respectable ten minutes of inspection the boat accelerated back to its mother ship. Suspicion of booby traps precluded a more thorough look, was the message sent from the Flagship.

Some viewers believed in the danger, others thought the message was intended to placate the crews; his buddies, the “brother”, his fellow humans. To each he was someone different, black, white, U.S., or Asian. He was one of us. We could be him.

Dusk deepened to darkness, obscured then closed the scene. We could no longer stare.

During the night the tide changed, the river with its silent traveler resumed the journey to the sea. In the morning, he was gone.

Back to Memoirs

© 2005, Alfred Dillon