[from the September 1999 KNIFE WORLD]
"Choppers on the Tree Line" by Jim Camera
ďFive bucks a piece, címon, You canít beat that.Ē
The year is 1968. the place is Vietnam, up near the DMZ, close to the Laotian border. His name is Stein and heís my platoon buddy in the 501st Infantry Company of the 101st Airborne Division. Weíre dug in for the night; perimeter set, claymore mines out. Itís nearly dark and heís trying to sell, to a few of us, a folding lockback knife. A relative of his from back in the World has sent three or four in with his food packages and assorted goodies. Some of the other guys need a good sales pitch, but not me; I love knives, always have. I may have heard of the Buck name before, but Iím not sure. Anyway, it looks good and itís the perfect size for the boonies. Folds up nice and fits into my side pocket. A friend from home sent me a fixed blade a few weeks ago, but I never got it. It was probably stolen when it got in-country. Somebody figured out it was a knife, and that was it. But for five bucks I can have this folder. I pay the five dollars and Iím real happy. I look it over, open and close it a few times, checking out the mechanism. I like the wooden handle, the weight of it, and the shape of the clip blade.
Iím using the knife for everything; cutting branches, picking at the dirt in tight places on my M-16. I even try to shave with it one time, and I slip and cut my thumb. Iíll bet it leaves a scar, since Iím never really clean, living out here like this.
What I like about it is at the bottom of the blade it says BUCK U.S.A., and that makes me very proud. About as proud as the U.S.A. across the front of my jungle fatigues. But thereís more than that. Itís my personal little protector. I donít mean like my M-16 protects me, not like that, but in a different way, special. When my tour in ĎNam is over, Iíll have to turn in my M-16, but not my knife. Iím taking this baby home with me.
When I was about nine or ten, my dad gave me a Davy Crockett knife. Little thing with one blade, yellow handles and a picture of Davy himself right there in the middle of the handle. Itís funny, but holding this Buck now, far away from home, reminds me of that little yellow knife. Iím pretty sure I know just where it is; top left hand drawer of my dresser underneath my socks, right along with whatís her nameís high school ring. The one I never gave back.
I always had that Davy Crockett knife with me when I was a kid. It served its purpose and was right for the time back then. And this Buck is right for now. When I get home Iím going to find out more about Buck knives.
So Iím in-country for five months now, had the knife for about three, and itís holding up pretty well under these conditions. I mean Iím always wet. Itís either raining and Iím wet, or itís 100 degrees and Iím sweating wet. The knife is always in my left pocket, and there are no signs of rust on the blade or warping handles.
We come to a clearing; a break from the thick brush, like a big bald spot on a head otherwise full of hair. Itís what we do to the jungle, air strike the hell out of it and make it look ugly. I walk across this patch of sandy earth and wouldnít you know it, I drop my knife. I had taken it out of my pocket to dig at some caked up mud on my front site and it almost disappears in the sand. I scoop it up, wipe it off, and figure that Iíll deal with the grit at the base of the blade later. I open and close it a few times and it still snaps like a champ. Old reliable Mr. Buck.
Up ahead somebody lets off a couple of rounds and a few seconds later thereís a couple more. Only these shots are farther off. Iím thinking, Ďweíre about to be in a firefight.í The word comes back to spread out, get off the trail. Itís tough going, all uphill since that sandy patch below. Iím maneuvering around, picking places in the brush to put my feet, thinking that I look a little like Vic Morrow in ďCombat.Ē Only Iím not having a whole lot of luck. Iím tripping on roots and getting my rucksack caught on every low hanging branch that I can find. But Iím off the trail, following orders. I like to think that Iím a good grunt. Up ahead the firing is more consistent. Everybodyís getting the act. And thereís commotion; guys are frantic to spread out and stay clear of the trail. My platoon leader is calling for the M-60 machine gunner to get up front. For all our training and preparation to be soldiers, like a fighting unit, itís almost every man for himself. I canít see my buddies anywhere. Thereís plenty of shouting, the sounds of brush being trampled, the rat-a-tat-tat going on all around, and Iím moving to find some cover, when I hear this terrific explosion. Somebody must have dropped a grenade. Man, that was close by. Thereís a blank space of time in my head, something I canít figure, and suddenly Iím looking at little puffs of dust five feet or so in front of me. Another blank space, then it hits me, real hard. Iím being fired at. Quick thoughts like little darts run through my head. This is a movie and Iím in one of the starring roles. No, this is real and itís happening to me and suddenly itís all in focus. Iím thinking that I really should move. Get as far away from those little dust puffs as I can. Only I canít. I canít move, and besides, it finally dawns on me, that Iím looking at everything upside down. My feet are in the air and my head is crunched up against my rucksack. Oh, this is just great. If it really is a movie that weíre making, we are going to have to do this scene over. Iím thinking Iíve got to get my feet down because right now theyíre perfect little targets. I canít believe the effort it takes to swing down and lie flat on the ground. But itís done and now I need to find some cover. Only I canít move. And I donít feel anything.
Then I figure it out, the genius that I am, that Iíve been hit. The explosion must have come from a grenade which was wired across the trail. In my effort to get off the trail, I guess I tripped it and set it off, and nearly took a trip to the moon, into the bargain. While this is all going on, I donít remember hearing anything, like somebody cut the volume down at the movies. But now the sound is back and everyone is screaming all at once. My platoon leader is calling for a medic. My knife buddy, Stein, is giving out directions. He keeps telling us all that weíre over here, over here. The medic pulls up with his little bag of miracle drugs and pills and, looking at him from over my shoulder, while flat on my stomach, I realize that all this commotion is for yours truly. He starts tearing at my trousers, then my shorts, or whatís left of them, to get a better look at whatever my little mishap has done to the backside of me. Now donít I feel like the center of attention. The whole squad is stretching their necks by now for a peek and somebody is asking me if I can move, and if I can feel anything. Iíll have to check the ďnoĒ box on both questions because I canít and I donít, and by this time Iím getting a little nervous. Thereís no feeling at all from around the middle of my belly on down. And Iím thinking well maybe thereís not a whole lot left for any kind of feeling, and not a minute too soon, the medic is informing me that it looks like Iím O.K. The rest of my pant legs are cut away and Iím enjoying the cool breeze when I hear the wup-wup of a chopper getting closer by the second. I grab at my helmet like Iím going to crawl right up into it and shield my eyes along with everyone else from the dust and debris being kicked up by the chopperís blades. The next thing I know, thereís a steel basket about as long as I am hovering right over me, and everyoneís lending a hand to set me into it and strapped down before the platoon leader gives the word to the chopper pilot, and Iím up and away. Iím watching my platoon pals getting smaller, feeling like a bird with a bad wing until they disappear from sight behind a mountain of green and brown. Then another mountain and it all becomes a blur of the chopperís wup-wup, dirt and debris, upside down faces and everybody shouting at the same time.
When I hit the tripwire, my Buck knife took a lot of the grenade's impact. This was the end result.
The basket and I come down with a thump as hands and arms try to separate us, only weíre giving them a hard time. Thereís a part of me that doesnít want to come away from the basket. Iím feeling no pain as I watch myself stretch like a spring. Then set back down as everyone realizes whatís going on. Iím thinking that I give a whole new meaning to what a war hero looks like. My manhood stuck in a basket mesh, lying on my belly, naked from the waist down. A couple more pulls and Iím free and lifted then set across the back of a topless jeep. Off we go, the driver, a shotgun rider, a medic and me, bouncing and weaving along the countryside. The medic informs me that Iíve been messed up pretty good but in his opinion I should come out of it well enough. Heís telling me that I took what looks like a chunk of ripe old pineapple grenade across my right buttock and various pieces of shrapnel along the back of both thighs.
ďYouíre out of the boonies, man. Youíre goiní home. Back to the World.Ē
Iím headed south, to a field hospital in Phu Dai, then most likely to Okinawa, Japan, where I can R and R like a champ, and think about getting on that freedom bird back to the world. As Iím being transferred from the jeep to another chopper, he places along side of me a crumpled piece of my fatigue bottoms wrapped around my personal effects that they somehow managed to save and keep with me.
This chopper ride takes all of five minutes before Iím transferred to a small aircraft with a cockpit and stretchers down the length of either side. Iím placed into one of them, this time on my back, and lay there staring at the bottom of the stretcher above me, not five inches from the end of my nose. Iím sharing the ride with other fallen comrades, and we each take a turn at personal versions of John Wayne stories until I feel myself slipping away into a blackness and a calm like Iíve never known before.
Thirty-plus years later, and Iíve tried to tell my story the way I remember it, and with a sense of humor. I was nineteen then, brash and a smart-alec. I thought I was invincible and that nothing could hurt me, but I suppose those are some of the reasons I was able to survive. I never thought about the dangers, and I never saw the complete picture.
When I first got home, I tried to put it all aside. I went to work for my father, helping him with his business. I lived a normal life, spending time with my friends, dating and falling in love. It took several years before the questions started to come up. I read everything I could find about the war, looking for reasons and trying to find a justification for it all. I came away with an inner peace and explanations I could live with for the things that I was a part of while I was there. I began to talk about it more freely and became willing to discuss it and answer questions from anyone who was inclined to inquire.
And then I pulled that old Buck knife out of the drawer. I left it alone for many years, along side the little Davy Crockett until I had the urge to see it and handle it again. Itís in pieces now, the blade broken at the base, the rivets loose, the handle warped and separated from the frame. But this knife was a part of my survival. Tucked inside my left pocket, it took a lot of the impact from the grenade that I tripwired. I developed a bond with Buck and I began to delve into the world of knives, accumulation then, becoming fascinated with the different patterns and appreciating the workmanship involved. I joined knife clubs, one of which is the Buck Collectors, and discovered through a network of people with a common interest that almost any knife could be found. I set about, intent on locating a knife like the one I carried in Vietnam. I placed an ad in the classified section of the Buck club newsletter disclosing the year of manufacture in which I was interested. Within a few weeksí time I received a letter from fellow Buck member Robert Schrap stating that he had found two 110 Hunters fitting my description at the Atlanta Blade Show. I called him, full of excitement and closed the Ďdeal.í The three knives are now displayed together in a wooden box atop of which Iíve carved the words ĎThe Knives, Vietnam, Buck USA.í
I feel as though a chapter in my life has been completed, one that had remained open for many years. I look at these knives and think about the past. I am filled with pride. Pride over my service to the country. Pride for an American cutlery company that became a part of that service, and an inner peace for the full circle in which Iíve come. Pride for all the wonderful people whom Iíve met along the way, in and out of the world of knives.
Copyright 1999, Knife World Publications