We drove along a mud-tracked road in the fractured shadows of the descending sun. There were three of us in the jeep. After two tours, I was on my way home.
I had trekked through sprawling tropical forests, climbed mountains and hills and waded through rivers. Ha Long Bay was breathtaking, perhaps the single most impressive place I had been in my lifetime. Vietnam was a beautiful place. Except for the war.
The concussion sucked the sound out of the air. All that was left was the ringing in my ears. I spit the mud out and groped at the ground. I crawled to the scorched and twisted hull of the jeep for cover.
Everything moved in slow motion until the sound returned with a crash. Bullets tore through the air. Fire crackled and the smell of burning oil filled my lungs. Shouting. Shouting in English.
“Mike!” PFC Williams called from the ditch across the road.
“C’mon,” Johnny grabbed my sleeve, “Let’s go.”
We sprinted over, heads down, and pulled him to safety. A knot formed in my stomach and my mind turned to the heat. It was all I could think about. Every day is summer here and it was one of the hottest.
Cold slows the flow of blood and reduces swelling. This is well known among army medics. Heat has the opposite effect. It is why the casualty rate from certain wounds is higher in summer than in winter. If the statistics were true in World Wars I and II, they must be true for Vietnam. It was why I had a knot in my stomach.
PFC Williams held fast to his belly, but it wasn’t the worst. The land mine had blown a hole under the driver’s side floor of the jeep. Williams had been driving. He bled and sweat and all I wanted was to make him cool.
“Get my kit,” I shouted.
“Here.” Johnny handed over the medic gear.
Voices moved in. Unrecognizable. Shouting and firing into the jeep. They’d be shooting at us soon.
I let fly a barrage of unrepeatable words. I plunged the needle into Williams’ arm. The morphine would help. I needed more.
“God,” I prayed, “Grant us a miracle.” My faith was most evident in times like these. Only in times like these. I wasn’t even sure I believed.
Williams clutched at a cross that hung around his neck. The cross which represented what Johnny and I often made fun of. He whispered. “Thanks.”
That he believed is what mattered to me. It seemed to do him good.
Clouds gathered and darkened. The voices moved closer. It was so hot. Humid. Williams closed his eyes and rested as the morphine took effect. I shook him awake. “No, you have to stay with us!”
The clouds rumbled. Johnny threw a grenade over the jeep; it exploded in the distance. The voices paused for a minute and returned.
The sky groaned as it drew the heat up into its arms. In a flash, it was freezing. We huddled together. The voices sounded confused, softened, and disappeared.
The sky looked and felt like a winter in Michigan. A single snowflake floated. It danced and fluttered in the air, descending, and landed on Williams’ forehead. Its crystalline form collapsed and melted into his sweat.
“A snowflake?” Williams said. Those were his last words and he spoke them with a smile that reached out to the heavens. I held him in my arms.
I had asked for a miracle, but PFC Williams was dead. I reflected on the snowflake. In Vietnam. In the middle of summer. The miracle was for me, it occurred. For Johnny.
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