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Something Had to Be Done

There's a mistake in this story which a fan who'd been a unit clerk called to my attention. I haven't corrected it for this appearance, but I want to point it out.

A character is described as wearing "a Silver Star (medal) with V for Valor." The clerk explained that the Silver Star was by definition an award for valor; there was no additional V endorsement as there might be with the (lower-status) Bronze Star or Army Commendation Medal.

I made the mistake because I based the description on a real soldier whom I knew with 2nd Squadron and whom I'd been told had been awarded a Silver Star with V for his courage at Fort Defiance. Obviously I was told wrong. My bet now is that the guy got a Bronze Star with V because he was a Spec 4 and, quite frankly, medals were more a matter of rank than of merit in Viet Nam. (I know of a lieutenant colonel who got a Silver Star for being so detested by his men that they shot down his helicopter when he flew over them on a road march. The loss was attributed to enemy action, of course.)

But that brings up the question of truth, which is one I wrestle with a lot. I wrote these stories very close to the period of their setting, and they're as true as I could make them—but what the people on the ground "knew" isn't necessarily the truth.

For example, there was a widely hated form of 90-mm ammunition, a shrapnel round called Green Ball (from the nose color) or Dial-A-Dink (from the fact that you rotated the fuse to detonate the round at a chosen distance from the gun; ideally just short of the dink, the Vietnamese, you were trying to kill). It was a complex and not particularly reliable round. We got a lot of it, and it was always the first thing tank commanders burned up during Mad Minutes when they were firing as many rounds as possible into the darkness for sixty seconds.

The 90-mm gun of our M48 tanks had a T-shaped muzzle brake. I was told that Green Ball had a tendency to blow off the front half of the brake, and it was certainly true that many of the tanks had damaged muzzle brakes.

Actually, the damage (I now know) had nothing to do with the type of ammunition. It was simply a result of guns firing thousands of rounds in jungle anti-guerrilla operations, when they'd been designed to fire hundreds of rounds (at most) during armored battles in Europe. Because we disliked Green Ball, we blamed the failures on the ammunition.

So you can't depend on my fiction to tell you the truth . . . but as for how it felt and what we thought, that's real and I stand by it today. Writing short stories and writing novels are two different things—as different as writing prose fiction and scripting for television. There are people who do both superbly well (Arthur C. Clarke above all), but the ability to do one doesn't say much about the likelihood that the same person will be able to do the other. The marketplace today is geared to novels. That's fine, and it's by writing novels that I earn my living.

But I came up through short stories, which necessitated me developing skill in writing tight prose. "Something Had to Be Done" is the best I've ever done at packing a story effectively in a brief compass. I'm very proud of it.


"He was out in the hall just a minute ago, sir," the pinched-faced WAC said, looking up from her typewriter in irritation. "You can't mistake his face."

Capt. Richmond shrugged and walked out of the busy office. Blinking in the dim marble were a dozen confused civilians, bussed in for their pre-induction physicals. No one else was in the hallway. The thick-waisted officer frowned, then thought to open the door of the men's room. "Sergeant Morzek?" he called.

Glass clinked within one of the closed stalls and a deep voice with a catch in it grumbled, "Yeah, be right with you." Richmond thought he smelled gin.

"You the other ghoul?"the voice questioned as the stall swung open. Any retort Richmond might have made withered when his eyes took in the cadaverous figure in ill-tailored greens. Platoon sergeant's chevrons on the sleeves, and below them a longer row of service stripes than the captain remembered having seen before. God, this walking corpse might have served in World War II! Most of the ribbons ranked above the sergeant's breast pockets were unfamiliar, but Richmond caught the little V for valor winking in the center of a silver star. Even in these medal-happy days in Southeast Asia they didn't toss many of those around.

The sergeant's cheeks were hollow, his fingers grotesquely thin where they rested on top of the door or clutched the handles of his zippered AWOL bag. Where no moles squatted, his skin was as white as a convict's; but the moles were almost everywhere, hands and face, dozens and scores of them, crowding together in welted obscenity.

The sergeant laughed starkly. "Pretty, aren't I? The docs tell me I got too much sun over there and it gave me runaway warts. Hell, four years is enough time for it to."

"Umm," Richmond grunted in embarrassment, edging back into the hall to have something to do. "Well, the car's in back . . . if you're ready, we can see the Lunkowskis."

"Yeah, Christ," the sergeant said, "that's what I came for, to see the Lunkowskis." He shifted his bag as he followed the captain and it clinked again. Always before, the other man on the notification team had been a stateside officer like Richmond himself. He had heard that a few low-casualty outfits made a habit of letting whoever knew the dead man best accompany the body home, but this was his first actual experience with the practice. He hoped it would be his last.

Threading the green Ford through the heavy traffic of the city center, Richmond said, "I take it Pfc Lunkowski was one of your men?"

"Yeah, Stevie-boy was in my platoon for about three weeks," Morzek agreed with a chuckle."Lost six men in that time and he was the last. Six out of twenty-nine, not very damn good, was it?"

"You were under heavy attack?"

"Hell, no, mostly the dinks were letting us alone for a change. We were out in the middle of War Zone C, you know, most Christ-bitten stretch of country you ever saw. No dinks, no trees—they'd all been defoliated. Not a damn thing but dust and each other's company."

"Well, what did happen?"Richmond prompted impatiently. Traffic had thinned somewhat among the blocks of old buildings and he began to look for house numbers.

"Oh, mostly they just died," Morzek said. He yawned alcoholically. "Stevie, now, he got blown to hell by a grenade."

Richmond had learned when he was first assigned to notification duty not to dwell on the ways his . . . missions had died. The possibilities varied from unpleasant to ghastly. He studiously avoided saying anything more to the sergeant beside him until he found the number he wanted. "One-sixteen. This must be the Lunkowskis'."

Morzek got out on the curb side, looking more skeletal than before in the dappled sunlight. He still held his AWOL bag.

"You can leave that in the car," Richmond suggested. "I'll lock up."

"Naw, I'll take it in," the sergeant said as he waited for Richmond to walk around the car."You know, this is every damn thing I brought from Nam? They didn't bother to open it at Travis, just asked me what I had in it. 'A quart of gin,' I told 'em, 'but I won't have it long,' and they waved me through to make my connections. One advantage to this kind of trip."

A bell chimed far within the house when Richmond pressed the button. It was cooler than he had expected on the pine-shaded porch. Miserable as these high, dark old houses were to heat, the design made a world of sense in the summer.

A light came on inside. The stained-glass window left of the door darkened and a latch snicked open."Please to come in," invited a soft-voiced figure hidden by the dark oak panel. Morzek grinned inappropriately and led the way into the hall, brightly lighted by an electric chandelier.

"Mr. Lunkowski?"Richmond began to the wispy-little man who had admitted them. "We are—"

"But yes, you are here to tell us when Stefan shall come back, are you not?" Lunkowski broke in."Come into the sitting room, please, Anna and my daughter Rose are there."

"Ah, Mr. Lunkowski," Richmond tried to explain as he followed, all too conscious of the sardonic grin on Morzek's face, "you have been informed by telegram that Pfc. Lunkowski was—"

"Was killed, yes," said the younger of the two red-haired women as she got up from the sofa. "But his body will come back to us soon, will he not? The man on the telephone said . . . ?"

She was gorgeous, Richmond thought, cool and assured, half-smiling as her hair cascaded over her left shoulder like a thick copper conduit. Disconcerted as he was by the whole situation, it was a moment before he realized that Sgt. Morzek was saying, "Oh, the coffin's probably at the airport now, but there's nothing in it but a hundred and fifty pounds of gravel. Did the telegram tell you what happened to Stevie?"

"Sergeant!" Richmond shouted. "You drunken—"

"Oh, calm down, Captain," Morzek interrupted bleakly."The Lunkowskis, they understand. They want to hear the whole story, don't they?"

"Yes."There was a touch too much sibilance in the word as it crawled from the older woman, Stefan Lunkowski's mother. Her hair was too grizzled now to have more than a touch of red in it, enough to rust the tight ringlets clinging to her skull like a helmet of mail. Without quite appreciating its importance, Richmond noticed that Mr. Lunkowski was standing in front of the room's only door.

With perfect nonchalance, Sgt. Morzek sat down on an overstuffed chair, laying his bag across his knees.

"Well," he said, "there was quite a report on that one. We told them how Stevie was trying to booby-trap a white phosphorous grenade—fix it to go off as soon as some dink pulled the pin instead of four seconds later. And he goofed."

Mrs. Lunkowski's breath whistled out very softly. She said nothing. Morzek waited for further reaction before he smiled horribly and added, "He burned. A couple pounds of Willie Pete going blooie, well . . . it keeps burning all the way through you. Like I said, the coffin's full of gravel."

"My god, Morzek," the captain whispered. It was not the sergeant's savage grin that froze him but the icy-eyed silence of the three Lunkowskis.

"The grenade, that was real," Morzek concluded. "The rest of the report was a lie."

Rose Lunkowski reseated herself gracefully on a chair in front of the heavily draped windows."Why don't you start at the beginning, Sergeant?"she said with a thin smile that did not show her teeth. "There is much we would like to know before you are gone."

"Sure," Morzek agreed, tracing a mottled forefinger across the pigmented callosities on his face. "Not much to tell. The night after Stevie got assigned to my platoon, the dinks hit us. No big thing. Had one fellow dusted off with brass in his ankle from his machine gun blowing up, that was all. But a burst of AK fire knocked Stevie off his tank right at the start."

"What's all this about?" Richmond complained. "If he was killed by rifle fire, why say a grenade—"

"Silence!" The command crackled like heel plates on concrete.

Sgt. Morzek nodded. "Why, thank you, Mr. Lunkowski. You see, the captain there doesn't know the bullets didn't hurt Stevie. He told us his flak jacket had stopped them. It couldn't have and it didn't. I saw it that night, before he burned it—five holes to stick your fingers through, right over the breast pocket. But Stevie was fine, not a mark on him. Well, Christ, maybe he'd had a bandolier of ammo under the jacket. I had other things to think about."

Morzek paused to glance around his audience. "All this talk, I could sure use a drink. I killed my bottle back at the Federal Building."

"You won't be long," the girl hissed in reply.

Morzek grinned."They broke up the squadron, then," he rasped on, "gave each platoon a sector of War Zone C to cover to stir up the dinks. There's more life on the moon than there was on the stretch we patrolled. Third night out, one of the gunners died. They flew him back to Saigon for an autopsy but damned if I know what they found. Galloping malaria, we figured.

"Three nights later another guy died. Dawson on three-six . . . Christ, the names don't matter. Some time after midnight his track commander woke up, heard him moaning. We got him back to Quan Loi to a hospital, but he never came out of it. The lieutenant thought he got wasp stung on the neck—here, you know?" Morzek touched two fingers to his jugular. "Like he was allergic. Well, it happens."

"But what about Stefan?" Mrs. Lunkowski asked. "The others do not matter."

"Yes, finish it quickly, Sergeant," the younger woman said, and this time Richmond did catch the flash of her teeth.

"We had a third death," Morzek said agreeably, stroking the zipper of his AWOL bag back and forth. "We were all jumpy by then. I doubled the guard, two men awake on every track. Three nights later, and nobody in the platoon remembered anything from twenty-four hundred hours till Riggs' partner blinked at ten of one and found him dead.

"In the morning, one of the boys came to me. He'd seen Stevie slip over to Riggs, he said; but he was zonked out on grass and didn't think it really had happened until he woke up in the morning and saw Riggs under a poncho. By then, he was scared enough to tell the whole story. Well, we were all jumpy."

"You killed Stefan." It was not a question but a flat statement.

"Oh, hell, Lunkowski," Morzek said absently, "what does it matter who rolled the grenade into his bunk? The story got around and . . . something had to be done."

"Knowing what you know, you came here?" Mrs. Lunkowski murmured liquidly. "You must be mad."

"Naw, I'm not crazy, I'm just sick." The sergeant brushed his left hand over his forehead. "Malignant melanoma, the docs told me. Twenty-six years in the goddam army and in another week or two I'd be warted to death.

"Captain," he added, turning his cancerous face toward Richmond, "you better leave through the window."

"Neither of you will leave!" snarled Rose Lunkowski as she stepped toward the men.

Morzek lifted a fat gray cylinder from his bag."Know what this is, honey?"he asked conversationally.

Richmond screamed and leaped for the window. Rose ignored him, slashing her hand out for the phosphorous grenade. Drapery wrapping the captain's body shielded him from glass and splintered window frame as he pitched out into the yard.

He was still screaming there when the blast of white fire bulged the walls of the house.

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