Short Stories

Ban Me Thuot

The two American advisors and their Vietnamese and Montagnard paratroopers marched up the metal ramp into the back of a C-130. As Spec.-4 O’Keefe took a sling seat against the fuselage, he wished the plane had windows. From deep under ginger brows his blue eyes probed the aluminum interior. The door closed, muting the howl of engines. Sealed in with the smell of nervous sweat, O’Keefe wanted to flee.

He squirmed around, trying to get comfortable, but was too laden with his parachute, medical kit, and the M-16 strapped to his upper leg. Some of the men clutched their hands and breathed in gasps; others, including O’Keefe, leaned back and glanced around, feigning nonchalance. After all, it was his second patrol.

They flew for half an hour into the Central Highlands. Across the plane, Special Forces Sergeant Traver slumped in his seat, vein-lined hands clasped over the rucksack strapped to his midsection, head bowed. O’Keefe assumed he was praying until he heard snores purling from his open mouth. Mr. Cool, O’Keefe thought and tipped his fingers in salute at the older man’s nodding form.

As a boy, he had tied handkerchiefs to toy soldiers and hurled them into the air. Usually they fell streaming back to earth, but sometimes the cloth popped open and the metal man came floating down, ready to fight. In those backyard battles, the general, three inches tall with four stars, was always his father. His father’s real rank, though, had been Pfc., lower than O’Keefe’s now. They had fought together from Guadalcanal to Okinawa, and they always won. But when his mother ended the war with a call to dinner, the general stayed in the field with his troops.

As the jumpmaster slid open the door to a roar of wind and motors, O’Keefe’s chest clenched. “Stand up,” the jumpmaster shouted. The men rose automatically.

“Hook up.” O’Keefe’s group snapped their static lines to the anchor cable.

“Stand in the door.” Wind rippled the jumpmaster’s face to a rubber mask.

“Go!” Pressed tightly in line, O’Keefe was carried forward by momentum. The man in front of him disappeared. Reaching the door, heart jackhammering, he saw a flowing jungle and a silver snake of river. The man ahead was now falling and spinning in prop wash while the previous man’s chute burst into a green dome. On down, away and smaller, drifting canopies dotted the sky.

O’Keefe leaped. The torrent snapped him around, shook him limp, and threw him away, rolling and tumbling. A tug at his shoulders shut off the blast, and he swung through quiet blue.

Other men dangled in the air nearby. Above and far away, the plane spilled more paratroopers. Below him, nubbly treetops of rain forest spread over jagged hills into valleys gray with mist. In the center stretched a wide clearing.

A chute drifting under O’Keefe erased the earth. He pulled on his risers to slip to the side, but was falling too fast. His boots sank into the taut canopy until he stood in the sky, his own chute collapsing above him. Imagining himself plunging to the ground, O’Keefe bounded across the bulbous nylon and dived free, fell for a swooping moment, then hung upright from his shoulders again. As he glided by, he met his Vietnamese neighbor’s shout of alarm with a shrug of apology.

The clearing seemed to expand as it approached, and the horizon rose above him as if he were falling into a bowl. His stomach sank. The elephant grass met his boots, and he rolled onto the welcoming hardness of the earth.

The handkerchief had held.

On the field, amber-skinned Vietnamese and sienna Montagnards were bundling their chutes for the helicopter that would haul the equipment away later. Everyone could have ridden in on choppers, but jumping in was considered good for morale.

Traver, the only other American, smeared a camouflage stick over his high cheekbones to conceal his light skin. He handed the stick to O’Keefe, saying, “Cover up, pale face. We gotta blend in.” O’Keefe rubbed the dark crayon on his cheeks, but his pimples still showed through.

Soldiers straggled in from the far reaches of the clearing, and the ninety-man strike force gathered in ragged formation. Their commander, Lieutenant Vanh, led them in singing the South Vietnamese national anthem, and they marched into the forest.

Fleshy leaves dripped with moisture, though there had been no rain. Clusters of tiny lavender orchids clung to the branches. Emerald butterflies glided on currents musky with fumes of fertile decay. O’Keefe heard the rustle and chatter of birds and monkeys fleeing but couldn’t see them through the shadowed screens of foliage. The trail climbed steadily, and tree trunks stretched out of sight into the jungle canopy above.

O’Keefe walked leaning forward, leading with his chest. His mouth was clamped shut, lips disappeared into a straining grimace. Beneath his mottled green shirt he felt the sway of two sets of dog tags, his and his father’s.

In front of him their radio covered the back of a short Montagnard, and its antenna waggled above. Traver strode ahead, breathing heavily through his mouth, face taut and angular, blue-green eyes scanning around. His lean body was bent under his rucksack. To shift the weight, he hoisted his Swedish K rifle across both shoulders and walked with his arms hooked over it.

Lieutenant Vanh hiked without a pack; a stocky Montagnard carried his equipment. The slender Vietnamese officer moved with a grace that made O’Keefe uncomfortable but that he couldn’t help watching. His oval face held a symmetry of tapering eyes, small nose, and pursed lips. Vanh’s long, thin fingers wore several rings and held a folding-stock carbine.

By afternoon, sweat, grease, dirt, and camo wax were blending into green gravy on O’Keefe’s skin. His legs had slipped into low gear and his mind into a nod. Dad and him…in Burma…behind the lines on a raid…had to blow a rail bridge. Soon they’d be going home…to mom, back together.

But dad stayed there…shot in the throat on Okinawa a month before the A-bombs ended it. Now just a white cross. Traver had fought in Korea…about the age O’Keefe was now.

“Trip wire!” Traver’s West Virginia twang broke the spec.-4’s reverie. His spread arms blocked the trail. The sergeant gestured the radio carrier to back up and pointed at a wire running above their heads to the straightened pin of a grenade lashed to a tree. “This is how they zap the command group. Antenna hits that, pulls out the pin…that’s all she wrote for the next guy — you.”

“Thanks,” O’Keefe said through the crimp in his camouflage-smeared throat.

“These with the wire aren’t that hard to spot. But sometimes they get that clear fishing line. You can kiss your ass good-bye.” The skin around Traver’s aqua eyes was creased from squinting. The edges of his front teeth, crooked and yellowish, chafed back and forth against one another.

The sergeant bent back the pin, untied the grenade, and gave it to Lieutenant Vanh, who accepted it with a forced smile. O’Keefe wished he’d given it to him: it was a World War Two pineapple.

At dusk the company stopped on high ground to make camp. O’Keefe dropped his pack and dropped himself beside it, too tired to do anything but pant and stare at the ocean of hills they had crossed. He tried to stretch back to his five-ten.

Traver shook his head in mock disdain and kicked some dirt at him. “Get up on your feet and jog around a little. We gotta set a good example for the troops. You don’t see me layin’ down, do you?” The sergeant limbered his arms while he paced.

Braces tarnished O’Keefe’s smile as he struggled to his elbows and looked up into Traver’s sinewy face. “Look at it this way, Sarge: You’ve had twenty more years to get in shape than I have.”

Traver blew a breath of scorn. “Lucky for you we?re just fighting the sorry-ass VC. You’d been in Korea, those Red Chinese would’ve scarfed you up a long time ago.”

“You mean you wouldn’t run ‘em off?”

“I’d run, all right. You wouldn’t be able to keep up with me.” Traver prodded him with his boot.

They ate their rice and dried shrimp with Lieutenant Vanh, who gave them stalks of wild sugar cane the troops had cut. As they chewed the sweet fibers, Traver asked the standard question: “What are you going to do after the war, Lieutenant?”

Vanh clipped off a laugh. “That depends who wins.” White teeth sank into his dark lower lip. “We win, I go back teach school. VC win…I go underground. Probably six feet. You, Sergeant?”

Traver’s wrinkled half-smile showed a new regard for Vanh. “If I can’t find another war…I’ll go fishing.”

Vanh chuckled. “Very good. I hope you catch many.”

They plotted the route of tomorrow’s march, then Vanh checked the guards on the perimeter. O’Keefe and Traver lay back on a granite slab overlooking the Annamite range and watched the hills they’d climbed merge into blue shadows as evening cooled the land. The rock still held the day’s heat, easing their pulpy muscles.

Traver groaned with relief. “First day’s always the hardest.” He pushed his camo hat back onto his graying brown hair and looked at O’Keefe. “You hung in there real good today. Getting to be a pretty fair field soldier. But I don’t think you’d be worth a damn back in the States. If you were in my outfit, I’d probably have to keep you in jail half the time.” His thick, joined eyebrows and the pinched furrow above them made him appear to be always glaring.

“Bet you’re right. I’m a lousy janitor.” O’Keefe’s speech dropped its “R?” and resonated with Boston nasality. His round face turned eager and his blue eyes gleamed as he plucked a blade of grass and whipped it through the air like a fly rod. “But I’m a good fisherman.”

“I’m not.” The sergeant pulled out a cloth and rubbed the dust from his rifle. “After this, I’ll take you to Ban Me Thuot for a week, recruit some more troops for the strike force. We’ll live with the Montagnards. They’re all Rhade back in there — best people you’ll ever know. If they like you, they might initiate you into the tribe, give you one of these.” He held up his wrist to show a plain copper bracelet.

“All-right!” O’Keefe sat up, nostrils widening above his closed-mouthed grin, more enthused than he wanted to show. “But the language…no biec.”

“I’ll teach you enough.” Traver checked the bolt action, ejecting several shells. “Just don?t try to sweet-talk the women. The chief’ll turn you into a Montagnard sacrifice.”

O’Keefe tossed up his freckled hands. “Been so long, might be worth it.”

Fatigue soon drove them into their nylon hammocks. O’Keefe’s was tied to a palm tree whose swaying, hacking fronds loomed above him like a spectral hand. Rocking back and forth, he repeated the sergeant?s praise: “a pretty fair field soldier.”

Falling asleep, O’Keefe sank into his mother’s stories about his father. She had told and retold them, then made them up when he demanded more. He had reread a stack of fading letters until they crumbled. Out of a yellowed snapshot stared a man with a lopsided grin, high cheekbones, and deep-set eyes hidden in shadow.

Birds riffed in the swift brightness of the tropic morning. The air was cool, about ninety degrees. The troops were lighting cook fires and fat, hand-rolled cigarettes. O’Keefe tumbled out of his hammock with sweaty feet: he’d slept in his boots to be ready for a night attack. He saw Vanh pulling his shirt over his supple arms and smooth chest, and he wished his mother would appear, bringing hugs and waffles. Instead, he and Traver shared a can of c-ration scrambled eggs.

The strike force left the forest for a valley rife with bamboo and elephant grass. The sun filled the sky and glinted from grass spears. Humid heat clung to O’Keefe, more freckles bloomed on his nose, and sweat stung the acne chafing beneath his pack. In a plodding trance, he noticed only the toes of his boots, the back of the man ahead, the freight on his shoulders.

Puffs of smoke stood out from distant bamboo; shots splashed like ice, shocking him out of his stupor. Chest pounding, he lifted his rifle and clicked it off safety.

Traver pushed the barrel down. “What are you supposed to do, first thing we draw fire?”

“The damned radio.”

“Right. Get us a spotter plane.” Traver’s squinting eyes probed the bamboo; he raised his Swedish K and fired a burst. Brass cartridge cases sprayed from the side of his rifle as he braced into the recoil.

O’Keefe motioned to the radio carrier, a five-foot-tall Montagnard with chestnut skin. The teenager saluted, flashed a gold-toothed grin, and offered him the handset with a brisk, “Radio.”

O’Keefe called Forward Air Control and relayed the patrol’s coordinates while Lieutenant Vanh, eyebrows arched in concentration, read them from the map.

The troops were letting rip with carbines and grenade-launchers. Their barrage tapered off, and after a peering, breath-held silence, a last defiant shot rang from the VC.

“Just a sniper,” Traver said, “trying to slow us down…help his buddies get away.” He told Vanh to send two squads ahead in a pincers.

The rest of the troops sprawled on the ground, grateful for a break. O’Keefe sat leaning against a thicket of bamboo. Now he could write the guys back home that he’d been shot at. He wouldn’t tell his mother, though. He touched the lithe bamboo, admiring its alternations of pliant shafts and rigid seams, the canes strong but able to bend. They reminded him of the Vietnamese: The thin leaves could be double-edged daggers or elongated hearts. When soldiers trod the young stems, they didn’t break but sprang back up.

Twenty minutes later, shots echoed as the lead squads fired into the sniper’s position. They radioed back that it was empty.

The spotter plane arrived, but the pilot said he could see no enemy movement.

O’Keefe felt watched.

When they continued marching, the sniper fired again. The men stopped, but the far, haphazard shots weren’t worth falling on the ground for. O’Keefe remembered that snipers aimed at the tallest, in hopes of hitting an American; he scrunched down a little.

“We can chase the bastard now that we got air cover,” the sergeant said, cinching his pack firmer. He turned to Vanh. “Tell the troops to double-time.”

Vanh chopped his hand in front of his chest. “We no chase sniper. Too risk.” His lips tightened in his fine-boned face, and he stood straighter to meet Traver eye to eye.

“OK.” Traver shrugged. “So I’ll tell the plane to go home.”

Vanh’s expression flickered. “No.”

“We don’t need him then.”

“We need.”

Traver’s aqua eyes stared impassively. “Only if we’re in contact.”

Pondering losing their air cover, Vanh glared at the sergeant out of oblique dark eyes. He dropped his hands in disgusted concession and shook his head, then shouted to the men. They ran toward the sniper, equipment rattling, waist-high grass slicing their hands.

As he ran, O’Keefe saw himself as one of the general’s men fighting amid toy tanks and cannons on his sand table at home. Above them he had strung models of Flying Tigers, Zeros, and Messerschmitts, and from his favorite power-diving fighter he had hung his father’s dog tags.

He imagined going with Traver to Ban Me Thuot after the patrol. The sergeant would teach him the language. They would recruit more soldiers, and at night they would drink rice wine and chant with the tribe while an old man beat on a monkey-skin drum. The Montagnards would initiate him, smear his forehead with ox blood and clasp a copper bracelet around his wrist. He and Traver would be Rhade together.

The sniper had fled, and the company pushed on into rice paddies separated by dikes and boxed in by bamboo. The rectangular plots filled with nodding grain looked inviting after the rough country they had been hiking through, but the troops tensed and began scanning the tree line and murmuring. A breeze rustled the bamboo to a soft clatter, stirred shimmering ripples on the green rice, and carried them scents of stagnant water and dungy earth.

As they filed along the central dike, more puffs of gunsmoke blew out of the bamboo ahead, and the doubled reports of incoming fire jabbed at them, sporadic at first, then increasing rapidly, punctuated by the hammering of a machine gun. Men wailed. Winds shrieked past O’Keefe. A hole appeared on the face of the radio carrier, who fell in a half turn. O’Keefe collapsed beside him.

Traver’s voice steadied him. “Get us some jets!”

O’Keefe held the Montagnard’s twitching body and looked into his agate eyes. Gone…. O’Keefe wished he could hear his bright voice saying, “Radio.”

O’Keefe made himself pull off the blood-wet transceiver. Fingers quivering on the knobs, he called the spotter plane and watched helplessly while the boy writhed in the paddy mud. O’Keefe’s hand moved towards his medical kit, then stopped: not even morphine could help him now.

“Already got a flight on the way,” the pilot said in a soothing Georgia accent. “Y’all hang tough down there.” Machine gun tracers streaked up at the plane but missed as it climbed away in a fast chandelle.

Don’t go too far, O’Keefe wished as he slung the radio over his shoulder.

The enemy gunner returned to closer targets, flailing the paddy water. When he found his range, spouts leaped at the men. Troopers screamed as bullets plunged among them.

O’Keefe clamped his jaws and squeezed his hands together. Don’t lose it…not in front of Traver. Hold on.

Lieutenant Vanh scrambled to Traver. “I told you too risk. Boocoo VC. We no can do. You get helicopt. We go back Kontum.”

‘”We’re gonna fight,” Traver yelled into Vanh’s face, pale as a blanched almond. “Airplanes come…bomb VC.” He shook him until he stopped trembling. “See that dike up there? That’s where we’re going.”

The machine gun threw another volley, and their company began keening.

“Let’s go,” Traver hollered. “Chung ta di mau-len.” He ran among the men huddled beside the bank, kicking them, pulling them to their feet, pushing them forward. O’Keefe and Vanh followed his lead, dragging men up by the collar and forcing them ahead. One man O’Keefe lifted sagged limp and heavy, then splatted back into the paddy when he dropped him. The rest ran with nightmare slowness through the gripping mud twenty-five meters to the dike. Some in front crumpled into the rice and were run over by those behind.

O’Keefe threw himself sobbing into the embankment. His chest was drenched; he clutched it, thinking he’d been hit, but found it was water. Bullets cracked overhead. The machine gun gnawed at the dike, spitting dirt into the air. Some fell on O’Keefe’s neck, and he brushed it away as if it were burning. Bile corroded his mouth and tears blurred his vision. His mind gaped open, no longer screening its input: On the dike a crab snapped its pincers at him, as threatening as the machine gun. A cricket fought a horde of red ants in a battle equal to his own. Any instant he might disappear.

Traver’s corded face brought him back. “Crawl down there. Get everybody firing.”

“But….” O’Keefe said, wanting to hold on to him.

“Do it.” Traver lunged to the top of the dike and fired his Swedish K in long bursts.

O’Keefe crawled among the soldiers, prodding and shouting, startled by his voice. A man lay at the base of the dike, covering his head and shaking. O’Keefe wanted to do the same but instead pulled him to the top and made him shoot. As he continued down the line, he imagined his father smiling approval at him.

A leech, like a slice of raw liver, sucked at his arm. He struck a match and singed the worm until it shriveled, then plucked it away with a shudder, leaving a puckered crimson circle surrounded by burnt hair.

Through the clangor he heard Traver calling for him; he ran back in a crouch. “They’re flanking us.” The sergeant pointed to where the bamboo was stirring. “Tell the spotter we need those planes now. If he’s got any rockets, put ‘em in there.” On Traver’s temple an artery pulsed, and tendons stood out on his neck.

O’Keefe radioed the pilot in a stammer while Traver lobbed rounds from a grenade-launcher.

“Those jets are only five minutes off,” the pilot said. “You boys are doing a great job. Here’s a little something.” The plane made a low pass, pivoted on its tail, and shot a rocket that exploded into dome of fire over the bamboo, then faded in a moment, leaving the thicket still.

Traver reloaded, breathing fast and shallow, forehead creased. “If they get around that side, we’re in deep shit. And they’re sure gonna try again. Another lesson for you — it don’t always pay to chase a sniper. Vanh was right.” Traver swept his arm toward the tree line. “You wanted to find Charlie, didn’t you? Well, there he is, Hard Charger.”

“Won’t the jets take care of him?” O?Keefe turned his round, shivering face away.

“We’ll see.”

He peered above the dike with his M-16, but Traver pulled him down. “Get back on the radio. Tell him how far our position runs. We gotta be ready when the jets get here.”

O’Keefe gripped his rifle. Damn it, if he could shoot back, he wouldn’t be so afraid. More leeches were sucking at his legs, but he couldn’t look at them.

A crump of sound carried across the paddy. Traver yelled, “Mortar!” and plunged into the mud. O’Keefe and the others followed and lay helpless until a hurtling screech exploded thirty meters away in a fountain of brown water and yellow flames. As O’Keefe clawed deeper, he pictured the enemy gunner deftly clicking the mortar dial and dropping another round down the tube. He heard the outgoing report and stole a glance skyward, seeing only a tranquil cloud, then clenched his eyes and covered his head until the sickening rush came down closer this time, concussion knocking his eyes open. The ground bucked and heaved as he tried to hold it together. The round had struck the other side of the dike.

Again he heard the outgoing slap of a shell. Stop it, he begged, doubling up with no place to hide. The suspended silence was broken by a roar as two jets swept over the trees, checking the target area. To O’Keefe the planes shouted the loud beauty of deliverance. The mortar slammed in, erupting the paddy fifteen meters away and hurling rice, mud, and shrapnel at the men.

The first plane sprayed the grove with hundreds of cluster bombs. While they detonated into slivers of steel, the second jet swooped down for the high-explosive run. Its pair of bombs tumbled end over end, slower than the rising plane, and burst into jagged white fire that engulfed the bamboo.

O’Keefe winced as shock waves hit him. Those poor bastards at impact. Brains boil, fingers crisp to tendrils, vacuum sucks the screams from their throats. Then the families explode…never the same again. How do they find out? A visit from a cadre, or a form letter?

The returning planes shredded the thicket with their 20mm cannons. Inside him, his own loss rose in a flood; to keep from drowning in it, he clung to his rifle like a spar from a shipwreck.

The spotter flew in calm circles off to the side; the pilot radioed that the jets were empty, but others were on the way. On their last pass the jets rocked their delta wings at the troops before flying off, trailing a snarl through the blue. The men, who had been whooping and cheering, gazed after them with stricken looks.

O’Keefe cut the trousers away from a Montagnard’s shattered leg. He poured wound powder into the pulp and tied two compresses around it while the man ground a handkerchief between his jaws. O’Keefe punctured a morphine Syrette, jabbed the soldier’s rear with it, squeezed in the liquid, then stroked his sweating, mahogany forehead.

A rush of tears made O’Keefe close his eyes. In flashes he was a child again looking up at his mother crying over a piece of yellow paper. He forced his eyes open.

Between grimaces, the Montagnard was trying to smile at him. An inlaid gold star gleamed on his front tooth. O’Keefe couldn’t return the smile, but they nudged fists. If they couldn’t get him out today, he’d lose the leg.

The field brimmed with quiet. Smoke lazed in the air. Through his ringing ears O’Keefe gradually heard the drone of the spotter plane, the pops of burning bamboo, the cries of wounded men. He tried to slow his breathing as the Fourth-of-July scent of cordite drifted over the paddy. He shut his eyes and saw a flag folded in the closet, a Purple Heart in a velvet case, the medal’s enamel worn away from O’Keefe having touched it so often. Wails of mourning rose within him, faint at first, then surging over him. He had to get away from all that, cut it off before he dissolved into it, trapped forever as that little kid. No way…anything but that.

He slipped another morphine into the trooper’s pocket for later.

“Get the men firing,” Traver said, lips drawn back from his crooked teeth, turquoise eyes keen, face almost exultant. “We can’t give Charlie a chance to regroup. And get me a casualty count.”

Traver’s voice braced O’Keefe; he molded himself to it, drank it in. This way’s better. He could tough it out: he was a soldier, not that soft kid. With a sob he stifled the grief back down. Get them!

As O’Keefe started along the line, Traver called, “You’re doing good.” He nodded and kept crawling, imagining himself as the first warrior, a primate with a stick. It must’ve always been this way.

An ancient Skyraider flew over the paddy. O’Keefe stopped, hands to his face, watching the single-engine plane. Just like World War Two. The stubby, propellered fighter looked like a Flying Tiger model above his childhood battle. She’d sat on his bed and read to him while the air force flew on guard. Now dad was here…they’d fly away…back together.

He jumped up and ran toward Traver while the fighter dived.

Look at that baby come in.

The plane released its canisters, which bloomed into orange globes of napalm.

Driven out by flames, a dozen gray figures with leaf-covered helmets rushed from the bamboo, yelling and firing their AK-47s. The Skyraider roared in low, strafing the VC. Several fell but others kept coming.

A hot cloud of engine exhaust cascaded over O’Keefe, blowing his camo hat off, baring his sandy hair. He rubbed his blue eyes from the sting of the av gas. Bullets tore past him with dopplered whines.

The sergeant rose to his knees above the dike and shouted, “Get down, you fool.”

Traver shook with spasms and fall back into the paddy. Through the fumes he looked wrinkled.

O’Keefe’s mind broke in a shriek; a bright, frozen glaze spread over his sight. He ran to the sergeant, who lay twisted in the mud, legs still trying to move, three holes across his chest gushing blood. O’Keefe sank down beside him. “I’ll fix you up.” He pressed his hands to the wounds, but Traver’s wet warmth throbbed through his fingers.

Traver’s eyes fluttered and darted, lips moved mutely, fingers scratched O’Keefe’s arm. O’Keefe dropped his rifle and held the twitching hand. “We’ll call a medevac.” He clutched the sergeant while his M-16 sank into the paddy.

Lieutenant Vanh crawled to them and knelt. One slim hand wiped mud from Traver’s cheek and the other touched O’Keefe’s head.

The troops began throwing down their packs and carbines and running back across the paddy. Vanh yelled at them to stop, then pulled out the VC grenade and hurled it to cover their retreat.

“We go,” Vanh told him, and O’Keefe nodded dumbly.

He gave the radio to Vanh, took off Traver’s pack, and gathered him in his arms. Unaware of the weight, he ran, splashing and frantic, following Vanh back the way they had come. Everybody going home. The Montagnard with the shattered leg held up his hands as they ran past him. O’Keefe’s lurching steps jerked his vision and his tears smeared it so the images of bamboo, running men, and swaying rice stalks registered in blurry jumps.

Looking down at Traver limp in his arms, he noticed for the first time the sergeant was smaller than he. Breath whistled from the chest holes and blood flowed warm and steady down their bodies, staining both their uniforms ruddy brown.

They passed through a bamboo grove and reached another beyond it before they stopped running. Vanh called the spotter plane while O’Keefe laid Traver down next to a small fan palm. Keep him from going into shock. Raise his feet…wrap him up. He tried to prop Traver’s boots up, but the sergeant began thrashing and convulsing. He squeezed O’Keefe’s hand then stared blindly at him. A flicker of recognition lit his face, and his lips parted as if to speak, but red froth bubbled out. O’Keefe tried to draw the filming eyes into his, to keep their light as they faded.

Traver drew his knees to his chest; his jaw sagged, breath rasped.

“No!” O’Keefe cradled him in his arms and rocked back and forth. “You can’t. You didn?t teach me the language yet. We never went to Ban Me Thuot.”

He pulled all the morphine Syrettes from his medical kit and counted aloud while stuffing them into Traver’s shirt pocket, then slipped the last one under the general’s watch band. Winken, Blinken, and Nod…the wooden shoe through the velvet night, the stars to guide them home.


The young boy sat spraddle-legged on the kitchen floor. His small hands held his favorite toy: the round lid of a casserole. He brought it close to the linoleum and adjusted its angle. With a deft flip of his wrist, he set the lid spinning. It rotated from edge to edge, then whirled on its handle.

Bubbling with private laughter, he leaned over his handiwork, brown eyes dilated, mouth drooping open. His curly auburn hair contrasted to his pale skin, which was translucent as porcelain. As his head, then his upper body, traced the revolutions, he slipped into a hypnotic dance, captivated by the wobbling clack and rhythmic flashes of light.

“Dad, Kevin’s spinning,” Darci called, mortified as only a twelve-year-old can be.

Michael tossed his newspaper aside and walked into the kitchen. He put his arm around her, and they looked down at Kevin, rapt in his own world, oblivious to theirs. Michael’s mouth squeezed into a tight line.

While watching her brother, Darci pressed her fist to her chin. “Stop him,” she said.

“The doctor said to let him,” Michael replied in a voice wearied into resignation. He pulled his daughter closer, liking the nudge of her slim shoulder against his side. “You’re definitely getting taller.” He rested his hand on her head, then tickled the back of her neck in the way that sometimes made her laugh but now got no response.

She looked up at him and whispered, proud and astounded, “I’m almost taller than grandma.”

His wife, Julia, carried dishes into the dining room while humming an inner melody. Her curly auburn hair was pulled back with a barrette, a chartreuse wooden parrot from Guatemala. It was a birthday present from Darci, so she wore it despite the colour clash. “Get Kevin,” she told Michael. “Let’s try him at the table again.” A battered optimism quickened the corners of her mouth.

Darci rolled her eyes and twisted her lips.

Julia’s expression sparked half a smile in Michael’s; he patted her arm while staring at Kevin. With a long exhalation he took off his glasses, set them on the credenza, and approached him, thinking back to those terrible months when they’d gradually realised he wasn’t just slow in learning to talk but hardly knew they were there.

Michael knelt in front of Kevin, reached out, and touched his temple. Somewhere beneath that wavy chestnut hair and white skin, his son’s mind writhed in solitary. Aching to be able to free him, Michael rolled up his shirt sleeves until they bunched above his elbows. When the lid stopped spinning, before the child could begin again, he hoisted him. “Let’s go, partner.”

Kevin whimpered to see his toy shrinking, but his blue-veined arms hung limply and his head bobbled. He drooled into his father’s shoulder. Michael stroked him, thinking he didn’t seem to rock his head into the wall so much anymore, maybe he was getting a little better.

Seeing his grandmother at the dining-room table, the boy grew animated. He squirmed and reached, wriggled out of Michael’s grasp, and ran to her. Wordlessly he scrambled onto Alison’s lap and knelt, staring at her crystal pendant. “Hi. Aren’t you strong,” she said and shifted under his weight. To gaze at the sparkles from an angle, he pressed his face against her silk blouse. Its smoothness attracted him and, as she reached up to pat his head, he rubbed his hands down her chest, then slid squealing from her lap to the floor.

“Quite an acrobat.” She righted her bifocals on her nose, pushed back her roan hair, and braced for a fresh attack.

Michael caught him as he was clambering up again. “OK, champ, let’s eat. Your grandma’s not a sliding board.” Michael and his mother-in-law shared looks of commiseration, then he turned away as he wondered again if the gene had been hers.

In his chair Kevin grew still, staring at his shiny round plate. He reached out to spin it, but his mother covered the shine with a spoonful of macaroni and cheese. Kevin drew back to refocus, plopped his hand into the hot food, squeezed through it for a moment, then wailed.

With a moan Julia dipped her napkin into her glass and swabbed his red fingers.

Darci snapped two taunting fingers in front of Kevin. “Snap out of it, spacer.”

“Don’t be mean to your brother!” Michael pointed at her until she lowered her flushed face and ate in silence. When he looked at Kevin, he couldn’t help wanting to smear his snuffling face into his plate. He bit his lip to block the thought.

Julia spooned up some of Kevin’s food, blew on it to cool it, and helped it into his mouth. He let himself be fed, but would pull the food back out and roll it around in his fingers or suck the cheese from elbow macaronis and stuff them into his pocket.

Alison mopped the spills. Darci dangled her espadrille from her toes, teeth clenched.

Kevin allowed some string beans to enter his mouth but promptly ejected them. His mother tried again and met a locked jaw. “Come on, just a little bite,” she coaxed. At her next attempt, he went slack, slipped off his chair, and disappeared beneath the table.

Julia glanced away from Michael’s trying-him-at-the-table-was-your-idea look.

They waited to see if he would emerge, then Michael lifted the tablecloth. Amid legs and shoes the boy sat on the hardwood floor, mouth open, fingers fluttering in front of his glazed, dark eyes.

“Hey, we got ice cream for dessert.” When Michael’s words went unregistered, he got down on his knees and began hauling the child out, wondering what he was going to do when he was too big to lift. He saw himself stuffing Kevin into a trash bag and cinching it shut. He shuddered and tossed his head to drive out the image, then silently repeated his most-used verse of scripture: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” He held the boy to him and kissed his pale cheek.

Kevin’s arm jerked at the elbow, his head snapped back, jaw jutted as a spasm shook him. A moan built to a bellow. He bolted from his father, careened off a table leg, and fled around the room, knocking the fireplace poker from its rack, toppling and shattering a floor lamp. Alison clutched her chest. Darci held her ears and glared at her plate. Julia grabbed for him but missed, and he crashed full speed into the couch, sat down with a thud, and rocked back and forth. The arteries of his neck swelled with blood surging to his head, changed from milky to crimson.

“The bottle, quick,” Julia said.

Michael gave her the baby bottle of apple juice, and she guided the nipple into her son’s mouth. He took it voraciously but couldn’t grasp it. Julia rocked with him, holding the bottle, her chestnut curls blending with his. Gradually his spasms eased and the blood faded from his skin. He sat very still on the rug while his mother stroked him and his father cleaned up, cheek twitching, lips drawn flat over his teeth. Michael cupped his hand behind his son’s head and closed his eyes, trying to soothe them both. Hundreds of times before, thousands to come.

Darci grimaced at Kevin. With a sneer that pinched her freckles, she lifted her plate and spun it. While it wobbled, she rocked back and forth, moaning and pretending to drool.

“Stop it!” Michael shouted at her, baring his teeth. “Don’t do that to him!” His face turned as pink as Kevin’s. Arms quivering, he grabbed the fireplace poker and brandished it at her. Its jagged tip traced loops in the air.

Darci looked up at her father and cringed.

“No!” Julia cried to him, standing with her son in her arms.

Michael’s eyes followed theirs to stare at the iron rod he was waving. With a groan he dropped the poker. His chin trembled and his eyes squeezed shut. He tried to say, “Sorry,” but a knot blocked his speech. A spasm like Kevin’s shook his body as he sank into a chair.


Mr. Zip

Like the mail, we wait for Jesus —

cooling his heels, he rises through epochs.

Out our window the air falls all day long.

Needing his missives,

staring at the approaching sidewalk,

we give up, yawn and say,

“No mail today.”

Then glimpse him past us, disappearing down the block —

bare feet pressing wet roses on concrete.

San Diego

In the pool a girl, slim and new-breasted,

treads water, watching the high-diving boys.

On the springboard a lad, skinny and shivering,

wavers before leaping.

Above them a Strike Eagle, sleek and silver,

plunges down, trailing a snarl through the blue.

The boy salutes the dive bomber,

dances up his courage, and cannonballs.

The water explodes, its flames engulfing a village.

The girl strokes towards him.


In twilight the spider’s web vanishes.

Rather than silken lace,

her eight legs climb only air.

She swings and twirls in a buffet of breeze,

then scurries higher into space.

Having only half her limbs, we are spider’s

clumsy kin,

but we too ascend on invisible threads,

spun from ourselves, sticky to the touch,

strong in the wind.

City Spring

Searching for sticks, the sparrow sings again

in the alley while

his spouse sips from the puddle

of a cat’s paw print.

Up from the mud sprout

green shocks of new weeds,

and willow buds, sleek as baby rabbits,

burst from twigs rattling in gusts against a billboard.

In the thawed sump of a tin can

bug couples hug in rapturous honeymoons.

Beneath us, a worm burrows after a friend

through earth once again soft enough to munch.

Even we two woolen creatures,

coughy-throated and pale, scurrying

for the bus, tug off our hats

and blink hello.

Coitus Interruptus

She touches me while I read,

presses kisses on my neck.

I smile


pat her


Mid-stanza her voice intrudes:

“I love you, do you love me?”

I read to the end, say, “Yes I love you,”

give her hand a dismissing squeeze.

Thinking, now go away,

let me finish this new book

of love poems.


On the frozen bud

a wren, fluffed to brave the sleet,

sings and flicks her tail.

Midnight Gallery

Paintings still shine

through barred windows

after we’ve all gone home

Wolf Country

JACKSON HOLE, Wyoming — The wolves have been reprieved. A federal appeals court has overturned a lower court decision requiring that all transplanted wolves be removed from the Rocky Mountains. Unless the Supreme Court reverses the current ruling, Canis lupus can continue to run wild.

Ever since their return, the wolves have been thriving in their new home. From 66 released over howls of human protest in 1995 and 1996, they’ve increased to over 250. After all, they are creatures of this raw land in a way that we aren’t. Wolves are fitted to this environment, and so to understand them, we have to know the country that nurtures them.

The area from Yellowstone to central Idaho has one of the lowest densities of human population in the United States. Those who do live here are held in thrall by land and weather, too harsh for most of our species. The elements keep us ever on the defensive without even noticing us.

People claim to own this country, but she owns us. Daily she teaches us how small our power is: we are like children clinging to a shaggy bison, helpless riders on a massive beast. We had enough power to exile the wolves, but then the wilderness was no longer whole, the grazing herds became unhealthy, and we had to bring back these culling predators. The banishment was short from their time frame.

The mountains they lope around are the eruption of a force that begins to rise in the Dakotas, gathers momentum as it buckles the prairie into ridges and ravines, then thrusts the earth�s crust into peaks. Humans read time on the land, and it dwarfs us: Rivers cut the earth for millennia, then vanished into the bottoms of their canyons, leaving them lime dry. Glaciers sheared off mountains, scraping them down to flat mesas. Epochs of wind are still gnawing the buttes into knobs of pocked rock. Now it’s time for wolves again. A missing totem, Sunm�nituthaka of the Sioux, has been restored, an ancient spirit returned to us.

Their example may help us better to endure the wheel of the seasons here. Weather weighs on us all, refusing to be ignored. Winter lasts half the year, burying the earth in snow. Bears, badgers, and rattlesnakes retreat into hibernation. Wolves just nap in the blizzards, wrapped in their tails. Antelope nudge through the white mantle to graze, watched now by stalking topaz eyes. People creep in line.

As the storms tire, winter yields, then breaks like river ice; sudden blue holes fracture the gray lid into cumulus floes. The mountain runoff swells the streams into roily torrents. The land wakes up slowly, knowing her first flowers will be sacrificed to May snow. Humans are last to thaw.

Spring blows our fences down. Elk huddle in the lee of bluffs as gales curry the earth’s green pelt. Clouds mound together till they darken and break, gashing lightning, spilling hail, drifting purple veils of rain while half the sky stays blue and clear. Wolf whelps nurse in their dens.

The summer sky widens, stretching the land taut across horizons like curing buckskin. The wind winnows pliant grasses, chaps the earth, snaps amaranths and turns them into tumbleweeds bowling across the range till they snag on fences and pile up to build shelter for seedlings. People plow the dirt. Young wolves romp.

The sun scorches through the thin air, driving streams underground and shrinking water holes into puddles beached with alkali. In the dry light, colors fade, sagebrush pales dust green, wheat straw blanches on shimmering hills. Prairie rises from shady coulees to distant ridges of sleeping dinosaurs. Valleys timbered with aspen and pine slope into granite cliffs which soar to snowy crags. Howls chorus above them again in wild polyphony. The land, tough as weathered leather, charges on toward everywhere.

Humans haven’t conquered this country; we haven’t even got a saddle on her; we’re just would-be bison riders holding on however we can. When she stampedes, which is mostly, we cling too tightly to love the ride, but at less than a gallop we can loosen our grip, lift our faces to the wind, and flow with the earth as she rolls beneath us.

While we’re riding, quickly out of the corner of our eye, we can glimpse the wolves running free again. They belong here.

Sedition, Subversion, Sabotage

To lay the groundwork for fundamental change, we need to be clear on where we stand in history, to know what is possible in our times and what isn’t. I hate to say it, but I doubt that any of us will get to be members of a society in which we’d actually want to live. It seems probable that even the youngest among us will have to live under an increasingly unpleasant form of capitalism. This system is too strong, too adaptable, and has too many supporters in all classes for it to be overthrown any time soon. The bitter likelihood is we’re not going to be the ones to build a new society.

The Left wastes tremendous amounts of energy planning that better world and quarrelling over ideologies. This strikes me as an anodyne, an escape into abstraction away from our painful historical reality. It’s useless and presumptuous of us to try to do a job that belongs to future generations. It just diverts us from our real task and thus prolongs the system we oppose.

What prolongs it even more effectively is the hope that liberal reforms will lead to basic changes. An honest look at our situation today shows this is a hoax. The purpose of liberalism is to defuse discontent with promises of the future and thus prevent mass opposition from coalescing. It diverts idealism into trivial dead ends.

Capitalism, although resilient, is willing to change only in ways that shore it up, so before anything truly different can be built, we have to bring it down.

How? I think our job is to impair this system, impede its functioning, break it in a few places, open up points of vulnerability for coming generations to exploit. These actions don’t require finely nuanced theory or agreement on ideology, just a recognition of the overriding necessity of weakening this monster, of reducing its economic and military power. This is a goal around which we can form a new united front.

Most of us avoid these actions because they’re so negative. We’re basically positive people and don’t like to think of ourselves as destructive. But we can’t destroy Moloch, all we can do is undermine it a bit. And that’s a great contribution. It’s not glorious but it’s necessary. If we do it well enough, our great-great grandchildren can lead a revolution and design a new society. If we don’t do it, our descendants will be the globalized serfs of Bush’s great-great grandchildren.

As I see it, our generational assignment — “should we decide to accept it” – is sedition, subversion, and sabotage. We can identify those institutions and modes of functioning that support the system and then attack them.

For sedition, much of our writing here in CounterCurrents is exemplary.

For subversion we could, for example, focus on institutions that instill patriotism in young people. Scouts, competitive team sports, school spirit, pledge of allegiance ceremonies – all create in children an affective bond to larger social units of school, city, and nation.

Kids are indoctrinated to feel these are extensions of their family and to respect and fear the authorities as they would their parents, more specifically their fathers, because this is a patriarchal chain being forged. It causes us even as adults to react to criticism of the country as an attack on our family. This hurts our feelings on a deep level, so we reject it, convinced it can’t be true. It’s too threatening to us.

This linkage is also the basis of the all-American trick of substituting personal emotion for political thought.

Breaking this emotional identification is crucial to reducing the widespread support this system still enjoys. Whatever we can do to show how ridiculous these rituals are will help undermine them.

For instance, teachers could refuse to lead the pledge of allegiance, or they could follow it with historical facts that would cause the students to question their indoctrination. If a teacher got fired, the resulting legal battle could taint the whole sacrosanct ritual and challenge the way history is taught in the schools.

Subversive parenting means raising children who won’t go along with the dominant culture and have the skills to live outside it as much as possible.

Much radical feminist activism is profoundly subversive. That’s why it’s opposed so vehemently by many women and men.

Spiritually, whatever undercuts the concept of God as daddy in the sky will help break down patriarchal conditioning and free us for new visions of the Divine.

Sabotage is more problematic. It calls to mind bombings and mayhem, which I don’t think will achieve anything worthwhile. But sabotage doesn’t need to harm living creatures. Systems can be obstructed in many ways, which I can’t discuss more specifically because of the police state under which we currently live.

Most of these things can be done individually, relying on the principles of leaderless resistance. They don’t depend on organisations, which can be infiltrated and destroyed.

All these actions together can slow down this behemoth, make it a less effective murderer, increase its vulnerability to outside attack. What we do could save the life of a little girl playing right now in the streets of Mosul. If we keep at it, this juggernaut will eventually grind down, falter, and fall. Then the people of that generation can decide what to build in its place.

The Election Nobody Won

Inauguration Day 2001 marked the end of a political season that saw Gore sacrifice his principles and Bush sacrifice our democracy, all to the great god Winning. After a campaign directed by Madison Avenue, the post-election debacle made it clear that our votes don’t count. Bush didn’t win the election; he seized power through a legalistic coup d’etat.

We may mourn for Gore, but he wasn’t even outraged. A true son of the system, he’d rather sink than rock the boat. His concession speech skipped over the assault on voting and instead calmed the public with make-nice emotionality, thus re-establishing his membership in the power elite.

Despite some positive qualities, Gore is not a genuine agent for change. Like Bush, he supports capital punishment, genetic engineering of foods, corporate globalization, and a military build-up. Economically, the two men differ only in the size of their trickle down.

To find the reason for this Tweedledee and Tweedledumb pairing, we just need to look at their mega donors. The soft-money moguls don’t want us to have a real choice. Campaign financing shows us that the major parties are just two sides of the same gold coin, two modes of control by the corporate oligarchy.

The economic power base of both parties lies in the business establishment, and they represent two tendencies within it. The Republicans support a fiscal orientation aimed at preserving the value of capital by keeping wages and inflation low. To them, a moderate increase in the number of poor people provides an anchor on the economy. The Democrats support a mercantile orientation aimed at expanding consumer buying power. To them, a moderate increase in the number of prosperous people enlarges the customer base. Each party contains more than this, but this is their economic core that keeps their leaders from acting against corporate interests. Both tendencies are necessary for their accumulation of wealth, and the alternation of power between them ensures that neither gets carried so far as to destabilize the very profitable enterprise. Given this structure, the changes we need can’t come from them.

Through ballot-access laws, matching-fund regulations, and debate policies, the major parties try to shut out other approaches. They want to be the only game in town, and it’s now obviously a shell game with no winners except them.

They and the corporate media also avoid an open discussion of their economic interests by turning elections into gladiatorial duels and riveting public attention on personalities and emotions. Politics, like the news, has become garish entertainment.

Both parties are now calling for restoring harmony, for pulling the country together, for healing the national wounds. But what they really mean is healing the wounds to the establishment.

For the first time since our defeat in Vietnam, a major crack has appeared in our two-party but one-purpose elite. As they try to patch that crack and restore the cosmetics of democracy, we can expect a media campaign to generate patriotism.

But the crack is there and it can be widened; a wedge can be driven into it and it can eventually be split apart, and this monolith of power can fall and something new and more humane can take its place. Otherwise the establishment wouldn’t be trying so hard to patch it up and erase the memory.

To counteract this media amnesia, we need to keep in mind the events that led to Bush’s inauguration. In reviewing them, an ominous pattern emerges.

Florida was a must-win state, and Dubya had a powerful ally there: brother Jeb, the governor, who mobilized his bureaucrats. One of their early priorities was to reduce the number of likely Gore voters.

Before the election, state officials purged the voter lists to eliminate convicted criminals who had lost the right to vote. In the process they also removed the names of 4,000 legal voters, predominantly African-Americans. When they showed up at the polls, they were turned away. Officials termed it a computer glitch.

Some local authorities tried to intimidate African-American voters on election day. Police stopped many for identification checks. Highway patrol troopers set up an unauthorized roadblock between a polling place and a black neighborhood. At the polls, some minority voters were rejected because they couldn’t show two forms of identification; only one form is required by law.

Many African-Americans who had signed up during voter registration drives went to the polls only to be told they couldn’t vote because their names had somehow not made it onto the official list.

Boxes of ballots disappeared from polling places in minority areas.

In Palm Beach county a ballot with an illegal layout confused thousands of voters into punching the slot for a minor party candidate rather than for Gore.

Military absentee voters, more likely to vote for Bush, were sometimes sent multiple ballots.

Election supervisors illegally allowed Republican campaign workers to add missing voter ID numbers to several thousand Republican absentee ballots, but they threw out similarly incomplete Democratic and minor party absentees.

The poor districts in Florida have antiquated voting machines which failed to read 45,000 ballots. When local election boards tried to count these by hand, paid Republican demonstrators descended on them. Some created havoc outside, pounding on doors and windows, shouting through bullhorns. Others posed as observers inside and raised repeated objections that delayed the counting until the reporting date had past. Florida’s secretary of state, who was George W. Bush’s campaign co-chair, then refused to accept the revised vote totals because they were late.

At 2 a.m. after the election, when the Florida outcome was still too close to call, Fox News declared Bush the winner there. The major networks followed Fox’s lead, and since a Florida victory would give him enough national electoral votes, they named him the next president. This created a public belief that Bush had won. The Fox News executive who made the premature call is Bush’s first cousin, and the two men spoke on the phone during election day.

The assault on democracy had its final triumph in the US Supreme Court, where the Republican majority prevented further counting by enforcing a deadline that the law itself says is flexible. Two of these justices have family members working for organizations involved in the Bush campaign, but they didn’t step aside because of this conflict of interest.

Not all these actions were organized from the top. Many came from local zealots going overboard to please their governor. But taken together they show that when winning becomes more important than ethics, democracy perishes.

Due to this broad-based coup, Bush took Florida by 537 votes and assumed the presidency against the national popular vote. Now the operatives who stole the election are running the most powerful country in the world. This doesn?t bode well for our future.

A New Beginning: Jews Return to Germany

BONN — Most of the other children in the film stand up straight, almost militarily erect, and look right into the camera. They state their names and hometowns in clear voices. The announcer explains how they became lost from their families.

One thin boy of about 12, though, stands hunched. He is darker complexioned than the others and glances away, as if the camera crew frightens him. In a muted voice he murmurs, “Karl Weisswein,” then adds his hometown: “Auschwitz.”

The announcer says: “Separated from his parents in concentration camp.”

Karl disappears from the screen, replaced by a blond orphan. The parade of homeless children goes on and on. Some are too young to know their names. They were found in bombed-out buildings, train stations, and cardboard boxes. The camera lingers on them, hoping someone in the audience will recognize them and give them a home.

The film was made right after World War II and shown all over Germany to try to reunite families. Now it plays continuously in Haus der Geschichte, the museum of contemporary German history in Bonn. It is part of the opening section dealing with Nazism, the Holocaust, and the war.

Thinking about what kind of hometown Auschwitz must have been for Karl, I watch the other exhibits through blurred eyes. They chronicle the growth of democracy, the “Economic Miracle,” the collapse of communism, and unification. Several displays feature Germany’s ongoing attempts to deal with its past, including the Nuremberg Trials, the reparations treaty with Israel, and the Auschwitz Trials. Concentration camp survivors are interviewed about their experiences, their lives today, and their efforts to win compensation.

Willy Brandt is shown life-sized kneeling in national contrition at the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto. I pull out a little drawer underneath him and read that seven percent more Germans in 1970 opposed this gesture as “overdone” than approved of it as “appropriate.”

These exhibits make all the others — the jukeboxes, refrigerators, and Volkswagens — look hollow and superficial. Something is always missing, haunting the edges of the displays of consumer bounty.

I leave the museum and walk through Bonn and realize that something is also missing here. An important element has disappeared: the Jews. As a Gentile who grew up among Jews in the US, I can tell how much better Germany would be if they were still here.

Fortunately a remnant survived and kept their culture alive, and now, bolstered by recent immigration, the Jewish community is rebuilding itself from the ashes. If this continues, they could make Germany add a new section to Haus der Geschichte: the rebirth of Jewish culture.

This new beginning is one of the most encouraging developments here, but its smallness and tentativeness point up the dimensions of what was destroyed. The never-to-be-forgotten fact is that from France to Russia, from Norway to North Africa, Germans killed every Jew they could find. The loss is beyond repair, beyond comprehension, leaving only grief and a bitter determination to protect those who remain.

This carnage also crippled German society. By murdering so many of its own citizens, Germany lost the dynamic of two counterpoised cultures, different, sometimes conflicting, but basically complementary. These two elements had enriched each other for centuries, producing some of Europe’s greatest achievements.

Now, out of annihilation, a community begins again. The two groups greet each other cautiously: “Germany is a very different country today. Welcome.”

“We shall see. Shalom.”

Despite the Pain, Kyrgyzstan Holds to Its Western Course

Bishkek Kyrgyzstan — Natalia had to sell her cow last week. In the warm months the cow could graze along the roadsides on the edge of Bishkek. It gave enough milk for her three children with some left over to sell. But since the winter freeze, Natalia had to buy hay for her, and the family couldn’t afford that any longer. She tried to sell the cow to her neighbors, but they couldn’t afford hay either. So the cow went to the slaughterhouse, and her children now get an occasional bottle of milk from the store.

Another example of Third-World poverty and unemployment? Not really. Natalia is a senior instructor at the National University of Kyrgyzstan, employed full time. Under communism, her salary met her family’s basic needs, including hay for the cow. Now, as a by-product of free-market reforms, her real income has dropped to the level where it won’t support a single person.

Kyrgyzstan, a country of 4.4 million in Central Asia, isn’t Third World. It is one of the former Soviet states making rapid economic and political progress, according to Western experts. The optimistic forecasts, however, don’t show the human costs of the transition. Materially, most people are worse off now than under communism. The average standard of living has plummeted during the changes of the past five years.

Nevertheless, the country just re-elected the principal architect of these changes, President Askar Akaev, with 72 percent of the vote. One of the most Western-oriented leaders in the Commonwealth of Independent States, Akaev has been at the forefront of the economic restructuring. These policies have brought so much hardship, however, that he is not popular here. Interviews with voters who supported him show almost no enthusiasm. What they repeatedly say is, We can’t go back to the past.

The newly renovated Communist Party, now decked out in democratic regalia, made the decline in the standard of living the main campaign issue. Their candidate won 24 percent. Most of his strength came from his home region in the south of the country.

In rejecting the communists, Kyrgyzstan went against recent trends in Russia, Poland and Belarus that show reds in the resurgence. The Kyrgyz reinforced their Western orientation. They haven’t given Akaev a mandate — the changes they are enduring are too unpleasant for that — but they have given him the go-ahead to continue with the transformation.

Akaev ran a defensive campaign, pointing to projections of higher employment and prosperity to come. Most people, despite a 70-year overdose of promises of bright futures, felt he was their best chance. Voter turnout was high, over 86 percent.

Akaev, with advice from Western free-market economists, is in the midst of transferring the state enterprises to private investors. The program’s biggest success to date has been the clothing manufacturer Edelweiss, which has increased production and is paying a dividend on its stock. Most of the other former state companies are either shut down or limping along with the help of government credits.

The transition has been an ordeal for the population. Huge numbers of people have seen their incomes pushed below the subsistence level they endured under communism. Three groups in particular — the unemployed, pensioners and public employees — have had to pay a high price for free enterprise.

The official unemployment rate is 20 percent, but a glance around Bishkek indicates the actual figure is higher. Groups of idle men cluster in vacant lots and doorways throughout the capital, talking and smoking, faces blank with depression. Unemployment benefits are negligible, as are programs to retrain workers with obsolete skills.

Some of the unemployed, though, are taking entrepreneurial initiative by selling items they make. Women on street corners offer freshly baked cakes, often with the Kyrgyz versions of Happy Birthday or Happy Anniversary written in icing. The more established vendors have a folding table and chair; the novices stand with inventory in hand. They smile because cakes are for happiness. Few people buy them, though. Most Kyrgyz can’t afford them now, and most foreigners with money are afraid to eat things from the street. In the evenings, then, the merchants take their unsold goods home, and when the cakes are stale, the family eat them for dinner. Marie Antoinette would be pleased.

Pensioners are particularly impoverished. Inflation has turned what was previously a pittance into almost nothing. Since social services have also evaporated, many have no alternative but begging. Old people sitting on steps with outstretched hats have become commonplace. Fortunately, there’s a frequent flutter of small change into those hats, often from people clearly in need themselves.

To heat their homes this winter, some of the more hardy pensioners are out with sledgehammers, wedges and wheelbarrows, breaking up tree stumps along the city streets for firewood. Again fortunately, the supply is ample, for Bishkek is a city of many trees.

The other hard-hit group is public employees. Since the government is virtually broke, its civil servants have to cope with increased workloads and paychecks below subsistence.

Not everyone is worse off, though. Some have managed to snare a share of the Western currency flowing in. Snazzy BMWs stand out among the drab Ladas in the traffic. Satellite dishes sprout from some apartment balconies. Casinos are flourishing.

Many people have eagerly adopted the Western model. Some become Herbalife distributors, buying an expensive supply of diet powder and vitamins and attempting to sell them to their friends and neighbors. Others become free-lance taxi drivers and set icons of prosperity such as a bottle of Rich Man cologne on the dashboard of their decrepit car. Others get gratification from chocolate bars whose wrappers are replicas of US hundred-dollar bills.

There are also successes — people with skills needed by Western consultants now lead better lives and are able to help their relatives and friends survive. Many an interpreter, computer specialist and masseuse is supporting a network of the needy.

Despite his victory, Akaev’s support is not strong. His program to lure foreign investment has made him less liked at home than abroad. People resent the generous tax breaks given to business, blaming these for the lack of funds to pay unemployment benefits, pensions, and salaries for public employees. They also object to lax enforcement of existing tax laws. Akaev gets credit for dismantling the totalitarian state structure, but now the government is so weak it can’t collect taxes that are due.

Communist voters, particularly the elderly, feel nostalgia for the old days. The security of having their basic material needs met now seems like a lost treasure. Non-ironic references to the Golden Age of Brezhnev crop up in conversations.

Natalia teaches foreign language at the university. Since she has 19 years of experience, she hasn’t been laid off. Her real income, though, has dropped disastrously — before the changes her monthly paycheck would buy 720 loaves of bread. Now it buys just 90, an eight-fold decline.

Her husband, a construction worker, has worked only occasionally in the past five years. When he does, it is for barter, usually wood for cooking and heating their home, which has no running water or gas.

Other expenses for their children, ages fourteen, nine and six, were more urgent than milk, so they sold the cow. It brought 1500 soms, more than five months of her shrunken salary. When that’s gone, they don’t know what they’ll do.

Natalia and her husband, unmotivated by the candidates, didn’t vote in the election.