There Are No Young Guys Here
There Are No Young Guys Here
PETE HAMILL—New York Post—1/10/1966
Perhaps we, who come from the fortunate places of the earth, shall never understand about places like Cam Ne. Where I come from, a place with shattered windows and no steam heat in winter is thought of as a slum. We think it criminal if rats scurry between the walls, or if children are forced to work at sixteen, or if a man loses one shot at decency and comfort because his education was incomplete or the color of his skin was unacceptable to others.
But in the Cam Nes of the world, to live past three is a success, and to make it to thirty is a triumph. I wish I could bring you here somehow; I wish you could see the faces of the old women, the light in their eyes extinguished, their small, shrinking heads looking dumbly from under conical hats, their skin eroded, clay-dry, pitted with the half-healed gashes of the swamp leech.
When they smile, which is seldom, their teeth show tar black from chewing betel nuts. If I could make that clear, make clear that these women have ceased being women at all, that their bodies have gone fallow and bone-hard like some strange new vertical beast of burden, make clear how disease has sapped them, and the filth of the rice paddies has flaked their skins, and ruined their blood, and shortened their very lives—if I could make that clear to you, you would begin to understand something about Cam Ne and perhaps about Vietnam.
You would begin to understand about Vietnam and the wretchedness of the land, if you could see the roads in the morning, clogged by people on the move, all of them old men and old women and young children. They carry on their backs all that they own: bamboo struts that make up their houses, small sacks of clothing, chickens, and an occasional pig. It is all they have. No books, no paintings, no radios, none of the soft ornaments of the twentieth century. Last year alone, 750,000 people in this country moved their place of residence, trying to keep a few hundred feet ahead of the violence. The whole country has been doing this for a quarter of a century.
But perhaps you should see Cam Ne on a trip with a couple of Marines. On this morning, I took a walk with two sergeants, Chuck Burzamato and Harold R. Hoerning. Burzamato is a short, red-faced guy, who came from Mott Street, lived in Brooklyn, and has been in the Marines for seventeen years. His wife and children live in San Clemente, California, and his parents live at 1402 East Third Street in Brooklyn. Hoerning has been a Marine for twenty-one years. His wife and four kids live in Oceanside, California, and his father, a retired New York cop, lives in Bayside, Long Island. They are professional Marines. They are also men.
We walked together down the dirt road which leads from the Marine camp to Cam Ne. The thick, gluey mud of Asia stuck to our boots and made a sucking sound as we walked. Hoerning was carrying a carbine, and Burzamato held a shotgun.
“The funny thing in Cam Ne,” Burzamato said, “is that we got through to the children, and we even are getting through to the old people. But there’s no young guys here. None.”
“That’s right,” Hoerning said. “The young guys are all off with the VC.”
The town is a collection of scattered huts and houses, laced with thick, crawling jungle. The Marines have been urging the people who live there to cut down the undergrowth, to clear the area of jungle. We saw an old man, with a Ho Chi Minh beard, slashing at the tangle with a machete.
“Hey, Pop!” Burzamato shouted. The old man stopped and smiled. “He’s got swell-lookin’ gums, don’t he?” Burzamato said. We walked into the bush to talk to him. “Numbah One!” Burzamato said, using the local phrase which means something is very good. “You do number one job, Pop. You come today one o’clock, see boxie [doctor], get food! Numbah one.”
The old man bowed, and shook his head yes, and said, “Numbah one, Numbah one.” Burzamato gave him a cigarette and we moved into the jungle.
Everywhere in the jungle we saw trenches and long, narrow slots dug under the roots of trees. When the battle was fought here, the Vietcong were dug into the holes, covered with foliage, firing machine guns at the Marines, as they moved in. “If Charlie’s dug into one of those holes,” Hoerning said, “you’d need a direct hit with artillery to get him out.”
The jungle itself had a sinister quality. I suppose if you come from cities, there is always something treacherous about uncontrolled nature. If it is in Vietnam, the possibility of violence around each turn makes it even more so. It must have been terrible to fight here; we literally could not see 20 feet on any side of us. “You could have twenty VC in there,” Burzamato said, gesturing toward a dripping dark area to the right, “and never see them.”
Suddenly we came to a small clearing. On a knoll, up above a small untended private rice paddy, stood a brick house. There had once been a walk leading to the door, but it was cracked and smashed now, with scrub growing in the broken places. Bougainvillaea ran up the sides of the house, and on its porch stood a small young girl, maybe six or seven, a boy about four, and no one else. All of it—the children, the house, the small 10-foot-by-20-foot rice paddy—all seemed about to be swallowed or suffocated by the jungle.
“Hal-looo,” Burzamato shouted. We walked up to the porch. The house was bare and empty. Not a single piece of furniture, no food, nothing. In one corner stood a neat Buddhist altar. The girl looked terrified. “Don’t be afraid, beautiful. Me numbah one.” He reached in his pocket and pulled out some candy. The little girl was afraid to take it. The boy reached out, and Burzamato gave it to him, explaining with gestures that he should share it with his sister. We started to leave when I saw something move in the corner. It was an infant, huddled in a kind of thatch nest, coverd with flies. The child’s skin was gray, its eyes clamped shut, its stomach swollen. It was obviously dying.
“Jesus,” Burzamato said. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”
I thought he was going to cry.
We walked through the village for two hours. Everywhere the old people were clearing away the tangle of undergrowth, chopping away the 35-foot bamboo, taking cigarettes from the two Marines. One old man had cut away about 10 square yards, and Burzamato gave him a whole pack of smokes.
We came across one little girl whose eye had been split by a piece of flying bamboo, and Burzamato called a Marine corpsman, David Luck, from St. Paul, Minnesota, and had the eye cleaned and treated. He gave out eighteen packs of candy, and when we started back later, the children followed him all the way to the base camp. He looked like a squat, gun-toting pied piper.
At one o’clock, the people of Cam Ne had lined up, and the Marines had spread the donated clothing across sheets of cardboard. The children came into the compound two at a time, and the Marines sorted out the clothing, trying to find things of the correct size. “Lookit this,” Burzamato said, holding up a sheepskin-lined jacket. “That’s for when it goes under a hundred.”
He took out a nightgown, made of a diaphanous material. “Just what the mama-san needs for a big Saturday night in Cam Ne.” There was a lot of joking and laughter, but the children walked away from the place, past the ruined shell of the house which served as headquarters, and they were smiling.
Perhaps we do not have either a legal or moral right to be in this country, and certainly the war itself is a disgusting and an abstract thing. But believe me, the Americans who are here are as decent as anyone I’ve ever met. It should be unnecessary to say so, but the Marine Corps is not the Wehrmacht, and if I had my choice of dinner companions between Staughton Lynd and Chuck Burzamato, I would not be long in the choosing.