For “Mistaken For Angels” April 25, 2009- Edited and published on realsurfers.net January 18, 2018
A Bullet in the Chamber
Guards and cameramen surge forward with the sound; instinctively reaching for a weapon, looking for a shot. People duck. Politicians throw themselves backward, into the crowd. No one knows where to look. Only one camera is pointed at the victim, his prepared victory smile frozen, eyes only slightly wide in realization, sudden but complete. Final.
General Sterling wouldn’t have been allowed to wear the revolver on his waist had he not been famous for wearing it. He wouldn’t be allowed if this was his country. It isn’t; it’s someone else’s country; about to change leaders. Sort of. Sort of is the standard thing in these types of countries.
During his three tours of Vietnam, he had the forty-five, safety off, a bullet in the chamber, with him at all times. It was the thing that saved him when, rounding a corner in barely-controlled Saigon, he met a North Vietnamese regular, a soldier of, it turned out, surprisingly high rank, and, as it turned out, also packing an American-issue forty-five; a trophy weapon, bounty.
That soldier was, as was Sterling, alone and out of uniform, blending-in in his own country, just checking on what he regarded as an arrogant enemy; so loud, so obvious, smelling of scented soap and milk. He’d looked quite shocked at suddenly being face-to-face with then-Captain Sterling, half-stoned and returning from another excursion to an out-of-bounds part of the city.
It took a moment. Recognition.
“Not a gunfight,” Sterling said at what became the official inquest. They’d both pulled their weapons. It wouldn’t have even happened if the Vietnamese had given ground, gone around him. No, “He refused to step around, to even move; refused to avert his gaze.”
“Avert?” the main inquisitor, perturbed by the looseness of the proceedings and the lack of air conditioning, asked. Looking around at the others in the room, the question seemed obviously wrong, asked by the wrong person; someone who had only heard of tragedies and mistakes and friendly fire.
“All right then, Captain… avert.” The three pages were tucked into a manila file, that into a briefcase, that closed. Nods were shared. “Guess it’s a good thing you had the safety, um, off.” More nods. Justified. Possibly heroic. Closed.
In the moments the gunfight had taken, and, too often, after, the eyes of the man who died so close to him; surprised, then desperate, then slowly going dead, were always on him. Always with him.
Too long after Vietnam, having already returned the repatriated forty-five to the World War II veteran father of the slain second Lieutenant, Sterling returned something else, a scrap of paper with foreign words, some in French, taken from the man he’d killed in the street. He did not wear his own gun, or his country’s uniform, as he stood in the merciless sun in the middle of the awkwardly rebuilt Vietnamese village.
The interpreter was a smart-ass student, son of people air-lifted out in the last days. Born in what had been a troop training area on Camp Pendleton, Las Pulgas (The Fleas, in Spanish), the kid was slapped by the mother of the slain man, slapped and dressed-down for disrespecting the recently-promoted-to Colonel Sterling.
The interpreter and the woman seemed equally embarrassed. Sterling showed no emotion.
“Tell her,” Sterling had said, “that it’s always the wrong people who die in war.”
The woman came up close to him, looked into his eyes. A long time. Maybe long enough. Sterling refused to blink. He wanted her to see.
She touched his shoulder, backed up three steps before turning away.
Here’s the moment I relive, replay:
Sterling, up on the platform, drops his arm, his hand still holding the pistol. He looks away from the body of the local politician’s right-hand man. This is someone not widely, at this time, known. Who he was, and his crimes, would, of course, become well known.
The assassin’s movements will be studied and discussed widely, from multiple cameras, every angle but his; including that of several of those people who knelt to help the man on the rough-sawn platform. No help.
Sterling tosses the weapon onto the man’s chest. Three men, as if suddenly able to move, almost fight each other to grab him. Their movements will look awkward, really, frantic compared to Sterling’s, on the video, images aged by constant viewings.
The General looks above the rim of buildings. The crowd is silent, but pressing forward. There is a ridge of mountains in the distance. He follows a thin line of cirrus clouds, a bit of rainbow color caught in the ice crystals.
Sterling barely reacts when the blade, held tight by the politician’s consultant’s enforcer enters, just below the sternum. There will be no explanation from Sterling for his actions. His photo will soon, but only temporarily, be taken down from its place in the secondary hallway at the War College.
Through the scope, high in a distant steeple, finger on the trigger, having waited for the order, my target pulled to safety, I follow Sterling’s last glance. From the incoming storm front, caught on the jagged edge of the second highest peak, a single cloud seems to be ripping itself loose.
I should add that the man he killed was not my target. Probably should have been, but, you must know, usually the wrong people die in wars.
Here are some potential illustrations for “Mistaken for Angels.” I’ll explain later.