Short Stories


The Picture

The Picture was first published by Author House in my Book Titled - A Life Chronicled in Poetry - April 19, 2007.  It was last edited August 15, 2017 and is entirely fictional.


I scraped a black slimy leech from my stomach with my K-bar, and then another.  Those damn things seemed to fall from the sky.  At first, I was sickened by them, and dreaded getting them on me.  After a while, I became used to them and even took some pleasure in looking for them on my body.  At least while I was looking for leeches, I was distracted from the other Hell around me.  The jungle held a lot of creepy, crawly things that needed to be watched out for.  Some could kill you, like poisonous snakes.  I had never seen one, but the rumor mill had it that if the ‘Mamba’ bit you, you wouldn’t make it more than two steps before you killed over.  They were better known as, ‘The Two-Step Snake.’  What a pain in the butt.  Not only did I have to worry about Charlie trying to kill me, I had to watch out for spiders and snakes too.

Charlie.  Why did we call the enemy Charlie?  I really didn’t know.  It was however, a much nicer name than, gook, slant eyed or some of the others I’d heard.  The guys that really hated them called them those names.  I guess it helped to hate them.  I tried not to think about it.  I didn’t want to hate Charlie; I just wanted to stay alive.  If it meant killing Charlie to do it, then I would.  I didn’t have to hate him first.

Doc always told us to not drink the water.  “Only drink the water you bring on the hump,” He’d said often.  I found out why more than once.  Finally, after being sick and tired of running to the latrine every five minutes, I learned how to control my water intake.  A few times I even drank water from vines.  “If the water is clear, it’s okay to drink,” I was told.  Anything was better than dying from dysentery.  I thought my feet were going to rot off too.  There was just no way to keep them dry.  When we weren’t wading through rivers, creeks or rice patties, the sweat from my body sloshed around in my boots.  I always changed my socks each time we stopped for chow, hoping to save my feet.  I also had this pounding headache, deep behind my eyes all the time from scanning and searching the jungle, eyes wide open, never blinking.  “You blink - You die!” Sergeant Hill liked to say.  As I lay there, savoring the five-minute break from our day’s hump, I looked at the picture.  A few of the other guys had told me I should get rid of it.  “Stop dreaming and focus on The Nam.”  I disagreed and kept it tucked inside my flack vest.

As Sarge gave the signal to saddle-up, I put her picture away and gathered my gear.  Just a few more hours and we would hunker-down for the night.  “Just stay alive for a few more hours” I whispered to myself.  “The darkness is your friend.  If you can’t see them they can’t see you.”

The blood red sun was beginning to set over the distant mountains as we approached a friendly village.  The village had enormous rice patty fields to the north and west and we needed to cross them before dark.  Staying in or near the village would not be a smart thing to do.  Intel’ said that Charlie visited this village regularly to get food and fun.  We would cross before dark and hunker-down in the bush to the northwest.  If Charlie came by for a mid-night snack, we would be waiting.  This was a ‘search and destroy mission’ after all, not some Sunday afternoon stroll.  What day was it anyway?  At that moment I wasn’t sure of the day, month or even the time.  Time didn’t mean much anyway.  Not until you were short.  When you got short, you counted the days, hours and minutes, marking them off one by one.  Me, I had only been in the Nam for about two months… I think?

Sergeant Hill had us spread out and reminded everyone to stay off the tops of the rice patties.  “Get wet and stay alive.”  He said.  Damn, my feet had just dried out a little.

We were about one-third on the way across when I heard the sound.  I had heard it before and I always got the same chill down my spine.  There was no time to react as the first mortar round hit its target.  The Marine closest to me and to my right was torn apart by the explosion and the concussion knocked me on my ass.  I wasn’t sure if I should thank God for sparing me or cursing at him for taking another brave Marine.  Charlie had been waiting just inside the tree line.  They knew that we were far enough away that by the time we heard the sound, the mortar round would be near impacting.  I made myself into a tight little ball and covered my head with my arms.  As all hell broke loose, I struggled to get deeper in the muddy rice patty water.  Mortar rounds impacted among us and AK-47 rounds zipped by over the dikes searching for human targets.  Marines were screaming in pain from hot shrapnel tearing into their flesh.  I knew that Doc was making his way to the closest Marine so I just kept my head down.  Doc would not stop until every wounded man was tended to.  I wondered where the Navy found men the likes of him.  The attack stopped as abruptly as it had begun.  Charlie knew we were pinned down, so they didn’t waste any more ammo on us.   They were well hidden about three hundred yards away in the dense bush, but we were hidden from them as well.  To our good fortune, the rice patty dikes ran parallel to the tree line.  We were behind the dikes down in the muddy patty water.  No doubt…that’s where we would be spending the night.  No chance we could get close air support either, the sun was already setting.  It would be dark in less than an hour, so we hunkered-down.  Tonight there would be more damn, leeches, wet socks, wrinkled feet and no food.

It must have been about three or four hours later when I heard a whisper from my right.  “Pass it on, move out to the east, stay low and quite.”  I thought to myself, “No kidding stay low and quite.”
 
I was going to be as quite a church mouse.  I passed it on.  Slowly we made our way to the end of the rice patty to drier land.  I probed the dike with my K-bar, like I had been trained.  I searched for land mines and felt my way along scanning for trip wires.  Eventually everyone that could was gathered at the edge of the rice patty facing the northern tree line. Thank God it was dark.  We were out in the open with the tall grass as our only cover.  Doc had stayed behind with a couple of guys who were seriously wounded.  Sergeant Hill laid out the plan for us.  If Charlie was still there, they would probably hit the rice patties with more mortar fire at sun up.  We needed to get to them before they could start sending mortar rounds into the rice patty.  We had to keep them from killing Doc and the wounded Marines.  Fanning out in a semi-circle, we began advancing toward the northwest along the edge of the rice patty toward the tree line.  When we were within about a hundred feet from where we figured Charlie to be, we stopped.  It was still very dark and the night sky was bright with stars but no moon.  I kept saying to myself, “If you can’t see them, they can’t see you.”  I took very shallow breaths afraid that Charlie might hear me breathing.  Then my stomach started to beg for food.  The growling and gurgling was so loud that I was sure I was going to give away our position.  I made myself as flat as possible and sipped on water to stop the stomach noises.

I wasn’t sure how much time had passed when the rising sun started to send white rays of light through the jungle.  She was on our side this day; she was literally behind our backs.  As the sun climbed higher, ever so slowly, we began to spot our enemy.  They were much closer that we had expected.  Rays of light reflected off metallic objects.  Human figures became barely visible against the green backdrop.  Their attention was directed toward the area where we had been and where Doc was.  Remembering to pick a target directly to my front, I checked my firing parameters and waited.  There was no verbal command to open fire. Almost simultaneously, we opened fire, catching them completely off guard.  M-16’s popped and the M-60 gunner sent hundreds of rounds into Charlie’s position.  Their plans to turn the rice patty into a killing field had been spoiled.  For just a few short moments the silence of the morning was shattered by gunfire and the sounds of dying men.  When the returning fire ended, several of the guys rushed forward.  After a few minutes someone yelled “All clear.”  Hill had me contact Command and request a chopper to get our wounded out.  “Have ‘em bring some water, chow and ammo too,” he said.

We took many lives that day.  But we had saved many lives as well.  We had saved Doc and the wounded Marines who had spent the night in the rice patty wet and alone.  We had saved our lives.  Well, all but one.  What was his name any way?  I hadn’t dared ask.  Since I was still a ‘Newby’ I didn’t know many of the guys by name yet.  I realized it might have been a good thing.  It hurts less if the guy, who gets it, isn’t your ‘P’.

While sitting there changing my socks, I felt a familiar sensation on my stomach.  Lifting up my fatigue shirt, I scraped away a leech with my K-bar.  Returning the knife to its sheath, I reached inside my vest and took out her picture.  I thought about the old cliché that says, “Out of sight out of mind.”  Some guys may want or need her out of their mind.  Not me.  I needed her in my mind.  I needed some beauty, some warmth and compassion in my mind.  I will not get rid of her picture.  I will keep her right here next to my heart and in my mind I said to myself.  Holding her picture to my chest, I drifted off into a semi-sleep state.  I could smell her perfume as I gently stroked her hair, the soft skin of her face against mine. I will keep her in my mind, I will stay alive and I will go home to her.  I will go home to her.
 
From the corner of my eye I saw Hill and another Marine making their way back through the rice patty.  They stopped where the first mortar rounded had landed.  I watched as they gently gathered the remains of the mangled Marine and laid him on a poncho.  My chest suddenly felt like an elephant was sitting on it and I began to sob.  For several minutes I cried quietly, embarrassed that someone might notice.  Maybe it’s better I don’t know his name, I thought.  Who was I kidding?  He was a Marine and now he was dead.  Nothing mattered but that; he was dead.
 
Doc was there next to me when I looked up.  “Are you hit anywhere?” he asked.  I assured him that I wasn’t.  He began checking my head, face and neck for wounds.  When I asked why he said, “You’ve got blood on you, is it yours?  I slowly shook my head no.  The guy that was hit by the mortar, maybe it was his, I thought to myself.  Doc put his hand on my shoulder.  “Bud was short you know; he was outa here in two weeks.”  Bud, so that was his name.  I just nodded and Doc left.

A couple hours passed by before we heard the Huey making its approach.   My radio came alive with the voice of the Chopper Pilot asking for smoke.  I replied, “Roger popping smoke.”  The Pilot spotted the red smoke, I confirmed the red smoke as he banked hard to his left and swiftly came in over our position.  A Cobra Gunship circled over-head as we quickly off loaded the bird and got our dead and wounded on board.  The Huey was gone as swiftly as it had come, leaving us alone again in the Jungle.  As the sound of its departure faded away, I wished I was on board.
   
We sat at the edge of the clearing for a while enjoying a meal of c-rats.  Everyone was careful not to bunch-up, although a few of the guys huddled in groups of two or three to swap beans and franks for peaches, or whatever.  Some smoked cigarettes and told jokes.  I stayed pretty close to Sergeant Hill in case he needed the radio. He was busy looking over the terrain maps, planning our next move.  I had asked why we didn’t have a Platoon Commander going out with us on patrol and had been told there weren’t enough Lieutenants in the Marine Corps.  Sarge had said, “I just can’t keep their dumb asses alive.”

The people from the village were starting to go about their daily routine.  Men and women were working in and around the rice patties.  Children also worked and played, everyone seemed oblivious to the fact that men had died here just a few hours before.  A young boy was near our position with his mother.  He knew that Marines didn’t like people, friend or foe to approach them, so he didn’t come nearer.  Once in a while when I glanced in his direction, I noticed he was looking at me.  I dug around in my ruck-sack until I found what I was looking for.  I usually saved my coconut and dark chocolate c-rat plugs for times like this.  The next time he looked at me I showed it to him.  He was several yards away as I tossed it to him.  He caught it with no difficulty.  Showing it to his mother he broke it in half giving part to her.  She did not look in my direction, but said something to the boy.  He shot me a thumbs-up, as if to say "Thanks," and began to nibble at the food.  I felt a familiar lump form in my throat and my eyes became clouded over.
 
After we finished our meal, and the ammo and fresh water were divvied up we began to saddle up.  There were still several hours of daylight left and we needed to put some distance between the village and us.  Hill gave the signal to move out and we continued north on our Search and Destroy Mission.  As we entered the bush, headed north I looked back at the village and surrounding rice patties.   The little boy was standing near one of the hooches looking in our direction.  He raised his hand and waved.  My stomach suddenly felt very empty again and a tear tried to creep into the corner of my eye.  I waved back at him as we disappeared into the jungle.  Damn, I hated this place and what it was doing to me.
 
NOTE:  Every time I left home on a deployment or detachment for three weeks or eight months, I always had photos of my Wife and Kids with me.

© John Vincent Prater 2007 - 2017



This Fictional Short Story was first published by Author House in my Book Titled - A Life Chronicled in Poetry - April 19, 2007.  It was last edited October 26, 2015.

Preface
"You ask me to tell you and the others a story. You tell me that if I tell a story, it will help with the healing process. Help with my healing and the healing of others as well. I try to explain to you, that it is much too difficult to talk about. I tell you I get too emotional, I cry just to think about it, and you expect me to talk about it. When I try to talk about it, my voice leaves me, my mouth becomes dry, I begin to shake uncontrollably and a myriad of emotions swell up inside me. I get the over whelming urge to escape to a safe place, to push my thoughts back, back to the dark place in my mind where they belong. You tell me to relax and to take deep breaths. I can’t relax; my body will not respond to my minds feeble attempts to communicate with it. How can I take deep breaths? With each breath I take, I can smell and taste blood and rotting human flesh. I am forced to cover my mouth and nose to block out the sickening odors. So, you see; talking about it is out of the question." 

Another option was to put it on paper; so I decided I would make an attempt at it. When I first began, I had no idea that it would be so easy. Once I got the hang of it, the thoughts in my mind became words on the page very easily. It was if the words were already on the tips of my fingers, waiting to be placed on the keys of the keyboard. I prepared an emergency kit next to my desk. I knew I would need water and an extra dose of meds, just in case. I made myself comfortable in the chair, knowing I might be there for a while and I began to allow the words to fill the page on the computer monitor.

It was several days later before I had finished. I walked to the bathroom to wash my face, realizing I needed a shave and wasn’t sure when I had bathed last. My stomach ached for food. I had not eaten since I began to write. I was exhausted, and felt like I had just humped for four days without stopping. I thought to myself, “How am I going to ever be able to talk about it? Just writing it is hard enough.”

                                             The Story
The Story is entirely fictional. I wrote this short story (and others) as a way of expressing what I felt might be some of the feelings and dilemmas experienced by some of my fellow Combat Veterans. It is only one of many stories that are locked away in a dark place in my mind. I warn you, it’s not a bedtime story; or maybe it is. I’ll let you be the judge. 

I had just turned twenty years old and was on my second tour of duty in Vietnam. My Platoon was on a search and destroy mission and had been in the bush for about two weeks. I wasn’t sure, how far from the Base Camp we were, I didn’t trouble myself with that stuff. I trusted Staff Sergeant Hill and my Squad Leader. I just needed to concentrate on keeping the PRC-25 radio dry and staying alive to do it. We had been searching for the enemy but had, had no contact. We were headed toward a known to be friendly Village. When we got there we would call for re-supplies, and do a little good will stuff that we usually did. Giving food and medical supplies to the Village people would help build support and make allies, we hoped.

My eyes popped open and I made eye contact with the Platoon Sergeant. Staff Sergeant Hill had his hand on my shoulder. Nor he or I said a word. He just moved on to the next guy and the next. As he continued to wake the sleeping Marines, I began to get myself ready for the days’ hump. I checked the PRC-25 radio, it was dry. I would do a radio check later. I scarfed down some canned beef and potatoes, beef and rocks as we used to call them. I took a swig of water from my canteen, imagining for a moment the taste of my moms’ fried eggs, gravy and biscuit and a big glass of lemon-iced tea, Sun brewed. I caught the signal to move out from the corner of my eye. I quietly got to my feet, checking the safety on my M-16, scanning the dense jungle for movement. Off to my east, just peeking through the treetops I could see the red morning sun casting its’ rays across a sky that was reflecting it back down to earth. What is it the Sailors say? “Red sky in the morning, Sailor heeds the warning.” Damn, another day of rain.

I saw the thin green line of light coming directly toward me before I head the crack. I knew that a round from an AK-47 was on a collision course with human flesh. At the same instant that a round slammed into my helmet just above my left eye, Jeff spun around in front of me. He had a neat little hole in the center of his forehead. His eyes were still wide open. As he died, I could see his pain, his sorrow, his anguish and the anger in his eyes, his eyes. My finger closed around the trigger, I struggled to find a target. An enemy I couldn’t see, an enemy who had ambushed us and scurried back into the jungle taunting us to give chase. I obeyed the cease-fire signal to find the Corpsman kneeling next to me. The AK-47 round that hit my helmet had found human flesh. There was a cut on my left check and a small piece of my left ear was gone. I could hear the Platoon Sergeant talking to the Squad Leaders; we were going to the village as planned, a two-hour hump from our current position. If and when the village was safe, we would call for a medevac to get him, Jeff and the other three or four seriously wounded Marines out of the field. We agreed to carry Jeff out with us since it was such a short hump to the Village.

The expected two-hour hump stretched to over three hours, as we blindingly made our way toward the village through a torrential down pour. The rain had come. My legs felt like they were lifting lead boots each time I took a step and my head throbbed like a bass drum. I was thankful for the rain as it washed away some of Jeff’s blood and bits of brain matter from my fatigues. I couldn’t get the look in his eyes out of my head. The harder I tried, the louder I heard Jeff saying, “Don’t forget me. Don’t leave me here.” His eyes were pleading, his mouth not moving. My squad took turns carrying Jeff, which also proved to slow us down a bit. It didn’t matter, he didn’t deserve to be left behind, no one did. Besides, that’s the code. No one gets left behind.

There was absolutely no sight of the enemy during the morning hump. But, we were pretty sure we’d find them at the village. Sarge had a couple of our guys scope it out when we got close. Everything looked normal, as normal as we were used to anyway. Two of our best long shooters took positions to cover us as we entered the Village. I remember how the Villagers avoided eye contact as we talked to them or pass them by. I was told that they were just modest people and making eye contact was considered to be rude. I couldn’t help but think about what my father had taught me. “Son make eye contact when you meet people. Only your enemy avoids eye contact.” Only the enemy avoids eye contact I whispered to myself.

The search for weapons and other unauthorized contraband continued for a while. Just as I started to enter a hooch at the far end of the Village, I heard a muffled explosion followed by a cry for a corpsman. Damn, another booby trap. Still standing in front of the thatch door of the hooch, the hair on my neck stood at attention, the air around me became chilled and I shivered. I had just heard a sound all Marines expect, but dread. The sound was the slamming forward of an AK-47 breach bolt as it put a round in the chamber. My legs were like heavy weights, my arms numb, lifeless limbs moved in slow motion as I kicked open the thatch door of the hooch. I found myself again closing my finger around the trigger of my M-16. My mind barely able to receive and translate what my eyes sent screaming in. I was screaming! Screaming as green, white death came my way. My own muzzle flashes blinded my eyes to the horror. The rounds from my M-16 where hitting their target. Hitting a boy, a boy who couldn’t have been more than 15 years old. He wore nothing more than black pajama bottoms, no shirt and bare feet.

More than thirty-years later, and my mind still plays it back over and over again as if a broken record.  

The bullets cutting a path across the boys’ upper body from his waist to his left shoulder, tearing away flesh and blood; covering the hooch walls and me. His life left him as quickly as Jeff’s had left him and I saw the same pain, sorrow, anguish and anger in his eyes as he died. I stood there motionless for what seemed like an eternity.

From across the Village, I heard Sergeant Hill calling my name, “Radio Up!”

An hour later, we put our dead and wounded on the chopper and stood in silence as they headed south and east away from the Village. Sergeant Hill gave the signal to move out. We disappeared into the jungle, leaving behind a burning Village, grieving and crying widows, mothers and children.

Damn... the rain again and the river we had to cross. I can’t wait for nightfall; to rest, to sleep… 

My eyes open and I make eye contact with the VA clerk. He has his hand on my shoulder. “Are you alright?” he asks. I nod, wiping the sweat from my brow. Scanning the room, I realize where I am. “The doctor will see you now.” I slowly get to my feet, feeling the dampness of my clothes; I am drenched in my own sweat. I quickly scan the room one more time. Thank God, no one has noticed my state. I follow the clerk to the Doctors’ office.

The Killing

This Fictional Short Story was first published by Author House in my Book Titled - A Life Chronicled in Poetry - April 19, 2007.  It was last edited February 6, 2015.
Me L/Cpl US Marines 1975 in Philippine Islands
Jerome came to the Platoon in late summer of sixty-nine.  His number had finally come up and he was about to be yanked from the streets of Chicago and sent to Vietnam.  Not wanting to be another statistic of the many black Soldiers killed in Vietnam, he enlisted in the Marine Corps.  He had heard the Marines were invincible lean, mean, killing machines; looking for a few good men and he knew he was just what they wanted.  As far as he was concerned, he had proven his grit many times on the streets of Chicago.  On his fifth-tenth birthday a rival gang member cut him during a turf war.  But, after a few weeks in the hospital, eighty-seven stitches and two pints of blood, he returned to the streets.  Later, when he stalked and killed the white boy who had stabbed him his homeboys looked up to him as if he was a hero.  The attention and admiration just added more fuel to his inner fire, making him more prejudice and self-centered. Jerome bragged about how he had beat the boy down with a baseball bat and then cut his throat and watched him bleed-out. 
“Don’t think about rat’n me out, there ain't no body, I made sure of that.”  He boosted.
  
It wasn’t long before Jerome had the reputation as the Platoon Story Teller.  The stories were always the same and the main character was Jerome himself.  Before joining the Marines to kill communists, he was being groomed by a very powerful organization that put the KKK to shame.  He was going to hone his killing skills while in the Marines so he would be a better Soldier for his people, for the BLM.  I later learned that the BLM was the famed Black Panther Organization.  

“The whole world will very soon know the power of the Black People.”  He would say.

We all just let him tell his stories and preach from his soapbox.  I for one knew he had a terrible problem and felt sorry for him.  The only thing that really bothered me was the way he treated Richard.  

Richard and I had become fast friends in the few months I had been in the Platoon.  Richard was cool, he had heart and enjoyed life, he was black.  Before joining the Marines I had only known two black people.  Back home there had only been one family of blacks in the whole County and the boy was younger than me.  When I left home for the Marine Corps he was starting high school.  Then in my boot camp platoon there had been ten black men and fifty white men, but thirteen weeks later there was just sixty lean mean fighting machines –brothers - Marines.  Staff Sergeant Taylor, the Senior Drill Instructor was also black for whom I had grown to respect and admire by the time I graduated from basic training.  Richard reminded me of him and I once told him he would make a great DI one day.  He replied that he was getting short and had no intention of re-upping in the Corps, let-alone be a DI.  Jerome was always ragging Richard about being, ‘A Flake’.  To him Richard was worse than we ‘Crackers’.  I respected Richard for the way he stood up to Jerome and the other ‘Black Brothers’ in the military.  Dapping-in or checking-in was kind of a ritual back then and every ‘Brother’ was expected to do it anytime and anyplace.

On one occasion; Richard, Danny, Mike and I were eating in the mess hall at Kadena Air Force Base as we often did.  Their food was much better than ours back at Camp Courtney.  Jerome and a few of his Bro’s came in, put their plates on a table and started going around the room, checking in.  When Jerome approached our table he made eye contact with Richard.  Richard looked straight into his eyes and told him he’d check in later, after he finished his chow.  He added that he wasn’t going to disrespect his P’s, by getting up from the table now.  Jerome left saying something about Richard being a ‘Flaky Cracker Lover’ that would get his one-day.

The C-130 rumbled down the runway like the fat clumsy bird it was.  There was always a bit of anxiety mixed with excitement when I flew, but I smiled and let out a ‘Devil Dog’ growl like everyone else did.  Once airborne, the pilot took a heading of south by southeast taking us away from The Rock.  The Rock was the name we Marines had given to the Japanese Island of Okinawa.  We (I) hated that place.  In a few hours we would be landing in the diamond of the South China Seas also known as the Philippines.  Subic Bay and the surrounding towns like Alongapo City were every Marine’s paradise.  Escapes like these were welcomed events, even if it meant we might be sleeping in the bush and eating from the streams.  Captain Carpenter was the Platoon Leader my first year with Air-Naval Gun Fire Platoon.  The Captain was an A-4 Sky Hawk, Jet Jockey that really loved to fly.  He knew from experience that every pilot flying over a combat zone needed good spotters on the ground.  He was with us on our trip to Subic Bay.  The Captain took every advantage of ensuring that if and when he returned to combat, there would be trained Spotters on the ground.  As I settled down in my jump seat and closed my eyes, I could feel my heart pounding in my chest.  I took long, slow breathes through my nose and listen to the drumming sound of the planes four turbo props.  I drifted off to sleep.

Richard woke me by punching me on my shoulder and yelling in my ear.

“Wake up Johnny Boy, we’re here!” he said showing his big pearly whites. 

“I wasn’t asleep,” I protested.

"Yea, checking your eye lids for holes right.  I’ve heard that one before.” He said.  We both laughed, thinking how he sounded like a ‘DI’.

The hump from the Air Field at Cubi Point to the Upper MAU Camp was exhausting.  We were all loaded down with our 72 gear, communications equipment and sea bags.  This was also part of our training program that the Platoon Leader had devised.  He always reminded us that we had to be in tip-top shape if we wanted to survive in the bush.  I had developed the ability to block out pain and other distracters and focus on putting one foot in front of the other.  But, I knew I wasn’t the only one having trouble blocking out the constant whining and negativity coming from Jerome.  I respected Captain Carpenter for his ability to ignore the underlying contempt Jerome had in his comments.  

“Go ahead and flag down a ride if you want to Marine.  Just remember, there aren’t any Jeepnees or Tricycles in the jungles of Vietnam.”  “Roger that Sir.”  Jerome replied, shifting his sea bag higher on his back.  

The Upper MAU Camp was a series of old Quonset Huts that housed Marine Amphibious Units when on deployment in the Philippine Operating area.  Fortunately for us, there was no MAU in Subic when we arrived.  Not only did we have the whole camp to ourselves, there was only one Aircraft Carrier in the Bay, the Enterprise.  Even with about five thousand Sailors on board, Alongapo City would be practically empty.  We found our designated hooch and clambered in and set about getting our gear stowed and our bunks made up.  Before the Captain left for the Bachelors Officers Quarters (BOQ) he reminded us about the 2330 (11:30pm) curfew.  “We have a sunrise flight to Wild Horse Creek bombing range tomorrow, so no over-nighter.”  The Philippines had been under Marshall Law for a long time and Alongapo had a strict curfew.  The bars, restaurants, tattoos parlors all closed at 2330 and everyone had to clear the streets.  After the Captain was well out of ear shot, nine Marines quickly hit the showers got dressed in our civilian clothes and made a beeline for the bus stop.  It was a good hump from Cubic Point Air Field, but it was an even longer one to the main gate down in Subic.  This was Jerome’s first time in Subic and he kept talking about how he was going to show these little brown whores what a real man could do.  At one point I had gotten tired of his mouth and told him he was taking the wrong attitude about these people.
 
“You better not talk the same shit out there Bro’, just have a good time and go with the flow.”  He told me he didn’t ask for my advice and reminded me I wasn’t his Bro’.  “That’s the attitude I’m talking about.” I replied and left it at that.

We showed the Armed Forces Police (AFP) our Military ID’s as we passed through the gate and headed toward the Canal Bridge (Shit River).  The stench of the canal wasn’t as bad as I had remembered, but then I realized it was still early.  The stench was always at its worst when you had to cross the canal on your way back to the base.  The smell of meat on the stick reached my nostrils and I started to salivate.  I didn’t care if it was pig, chicken, dog, cat or monkey meat.  I had never gotten sick from eating it and besides it was delicious.  The little girls all dressed in white were there in the banca boats, in the canal holding out the white paper cups for us to toss pesos into.  Little boys not more than seven or eight were swimming in the filthy water next to the boats also calling out for pesos.  I always had the same weird sick feeling in my chest when I saw them begging that way.  This was one thing I couldn’t share with my P’s though.  “Marines are tough, lean, mean, fighting machines and there was no room for softies on the team.”   Once we were on the corner of Magsaysay and Gordon we spilt up.  We all agreed to meet just inside the main gate after curfew and catch the bus back to the MAU Camp together.  If you were not there by straight up mid-night it was assumed you were doing an over-nighter.

At 2330, Magsaysay Drive was filled the entire length by Marines, Sailor, Fly Boys, and locals all either heading home or back to the base.  At the corner of Gordon Avenue and Magsaysay Drive nearest to Canal Bridge, Jeepnees and Tricycles picked up passengers to get them to their homes.  The Armed Forces Police (AFP) and Filipino Constabularies (PC’s) were out in force keeping the crowds moving along.  I was slowly picking my way through the crowd when I spotted Richard and Danny.  I came up next to them and tossed a greeting.  They both briefly glanced my way smiling as they checked-out the hot streetwalkers grabbing at Squids and Jarheads.  We had been for-warned by the bar girls to be careful of the streetwalkers.  They were usually girls that were not allowed to work in bars because they had VD or they were not real girls.  A Marine friend of mine had spent the night in jail for hitting a Benny-Boy that had grabbed his crotch.  The PC that arrested Mike had told him, “I saw what he did, but you can’t hit him like that.”  Mike spent the night in jail for punching a gay Filipino kid.  Back inside the base we were all there by 2345 except for Jerome.  At 2400, straight up mid-night just as we had discussed the rest of us caught the bus back to the MAU Camp.  When we walked into the hooch there was Jerome laid out on his rack snoring like a bull.

As the sun came up over the mountains east of Cubi Point we were all standing in formation next to the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter.  Captain Carpenter approached and we came to attention.  Lance Corporal Danny Stamper stood out in front of the formation and saluted as he reported, “All present and or accounted for, Sir.”  Captain Carpenter returned the salute and told us to stand by while he checked on our departure time.  While we waited, one of the guys asked Jerome for the ump-tenth time what had happened to him last night.  Jerome would only say that he was going to get his stuff back and that bitch was going to get hers.  He would not elaborate and avoided talking about what had happened.  We could only imagine that he had gotten with the wrong kind of girl, one we had all told him about.  She must have ripped him off and left him with just his ID card to get back on base.  Most of the time they take it all, including your clothes, and sometimes your life.

There was the Observation Post (OP), standing about 300 feet above the ridge-line and near a thousand meters from the valley floor.  I began to mentally prepare myself for the climb to the top.  Unexpectedly the Pilot banked hard to the right and circled the OP.  Captain Carpenter barked out over the noise of chopper’s engines, “No climb today gents, we’re setting down on top.”  Danny, Richard and I looked at each other with wide eyes.  On previous training missions we’d had to climb the 300 feet to the OP.  Other Pilots had declined our request to set their bird down on the small and rocky OP.  This Pilot was not only gutsy, he was awesome as he brought the CH-46 low in over the OP and began to hover a couple of feet above a small clearing.  The rear ramp came down, Captain Carpenter barked again, “Big step gents, stay low and get clear!” He went out first as we all followed.  I exited the bird and once clear of the rotor wash I turned back to see Danny stumbling to get to his feet.  My Kodak 110 camera was tucked in my flack vest and before I could retrieve it, the chopper was already swooping down and away from the OP.  The picture I didn’t get was of a monster Sea Knight hovering just above the OP with its rear landing gear a few feet above the ground.  The forward half of the bird was out over the edge of the rocky cliff, as if hanging by a wire.  I was filled with awe and pride to have had such an experience, but was pissed that I didn’t get the picture.  I ran over to Danny assisting him to his feet.  Dusting himself off he growled, “You’re going to be the last one out next time.”  I just laughed. 

The next few weeks were filled with Tactical Air Support Missions, Naval Gunfire Spotting exercises and even Jungle Survival Training.  There was no doubt that we were ready for combat in more ways than one.  It was such a rush to watch an A-4 Sky Hawk loaded with 500lb bombs with snake-eye fins and napalm canisters swoop in on a target that you had just designated.  Even at over a thousand meters away you could feel the concussion of the exploding bombs and almost feel the heat of the napalm.  Looking through my binoculars I had watched as 5-inch zoonie rockets plowed the dirt and impacted a bunker on the side of a rising slope.  It was such an awesome feeling to talk on the radio with a pilot and guide him to his target.  I had the best job in the Corps and I was good at it. 

“In bound bird this Beach Boy (26C) Two Six Charlie interrogative your call sign and ordnance, over.” 

"Roger Garfish, I copy Snake and Nap, Beach Boy (26C) Two Six Charlie standing by, over.”

Danny, Richard and I were sitting on the outside deck of the American Legion Post 4 club overlooking Magsaysay Drive.  This was our last day in the PI so we were just soaking up some rays while sharing a pitcher of mojo.  A couple of the other guys from our team saw us sitting on the upper deck so they came up to join us.  One of them asked if we had seen Jerome to which we replied we had not.  He went on to explain that Jerome had found the girl that ripped him off and had pushed her around and threatened her.  She told him to meet her at the corner of Magsaysay and Hansen today and she would give him back his wallet.  “We were supposed to go with him but he took off without us.”  One of his Bro’s said.  “We figured we could watch for him from here.” The other guy added.  It was true, from the deck of the Post we could see the intersection just a few clubs to our left.  A couple hours passed by while we drank mojo and talked about going to the Nam.  Danny, Richard and I were next up on the rotation and we promised we’d look out for each other no matter what. 

One of the other Brothers with us notice Jerome first, he was stumbling down the middle of Magsaysay headed for Hansen Street.  “Hey Bro’ what’s up!”  He yelled at Jerome.  Jerome didn’t even look up; he just lifted his fist in the air and shouted, “Black Power Man!”  Just as he dropped his hand a Tricycle came speeding up from behind him.  We all watched in disbelief as a huge Bolo Knife suddenly appeared from the sidecar.  A slim brown arm was wielding the weapon with ease.  Jerome never felt a thing as the heavy, razor sharp Bolo cut his head clean off.  Just like in the horror movies I had seen as a kid, the body seemed to take two or three more steps before it collapsed on the ground next to its head.  The eyes were still open.     

Note:  The part of the story about the character, Jerome and his subsequent murder is completely fiction.  However, the rest of the story to include all the other characters and their actual names is true.  We were in the Philippines together for most of 1975...

"Humility and respect for others and their way of life can save your own life."   

The Bronze Praetorian

Jonathan gently grasped the brass handle of the huge wooden door. Pushing down, he quietly opened it.   Standing there for a moment; he let his eyes adjust to the dim light in the great room.  The walls before him were covered with paintings and photos of generations upon generation s of his family.  On every table and shelf sat wonderful pieces of art and collectibles.  The fireplace, at the center of the far wall, was the focal point.  There was a glowing fire which made the room feel warm and cozy.  Light and shadows created by the dancing flames, seemingly gave life to the many paintings and statuettes.  Jonathan always enjoyed visiting his Grand-Father during the winter season.  
I watched as Young Jonathan approached the empty chair to the left side of the fireplace.  Glancing at his Grand-Father, he pulled himself into the big comfy chair.  Sir was sitting just across, in his favorite chair.  For a few moments the pair said not a word.  Jonathan followed Sir’s example, enjoying the quiet solitude and the warmth of the fire.  Glancing once again in his Grand-Father’s direction, Jonathan caught the smile Sir was casting his way.  Smiling, he leaned back, and for a few moments more they both sat there in deep thought.  Sir gently drew smoke through the stem of his pipe.  Then slowly, he let it escape from his mouth, filling the room with the sweet aroma of cherries.  Even his pipe had historical and sentimental value.  Jonathan liked the smell of the pipe.  Cherry was his favorite, although Sir used orange and other flavors as well.
Sir spoke first.  “So… what’s new with my favorite Grand-son?”
It was sort of ritual between the two.  Sir would ask the same question, and Jonathan always answered the same.
“The same Sir.  Nothing new.”
They both laughed.  For the next while, the two shared news and special events which had transpired since Jonathan last visited.  Sir and I got to see Jonathan just twice a year.  He and his parents; Sir’s son and his wife, came to visit on Thanksgiving and a few days each summer.  Sometimes during the summer, Jonathan would stay for several weeks.  What a great time he always had.
Sir reached for the large amber ash tray sitting on the table next to him.  Holding it firmly, he tapped the pipe against the center.  Time for a fresh bowl of tobacco, I thought to myself.  Story time will surely follow close behind.  The lighted match in place above the pipe bowl, Sir took a few draws.  Flicking the expended match into the fire, the tobacco glowed.  Blowing a cloud of smoke towards the ceiling, Sir sat back in his chair.
“Jonathan my boy!?”  There was a hint of an inquisitive tone in his voice.  “Jonathan my boy?”  He said again.  “Have I ever told you…
Jonathan; was now leaning forward, his arms wrapped around his knees.
Please forgive me.  I haven’t introduced myself.  My name is, Jonathan Willamus Praetor, formally known of as the Praetorian.  I am here.  Standing proudly on the mantel in my usual place.  Sir placed me here many years ago.  He had discovered me in an English antique shop while on one of his many journeys abroad.  I am the Bronze Praetorian.
'The Bronze Praetorian' was originally written as the intro' to a Short Story titled 'The Story Teller.'  As the 'Story Teller' failed to find its way to the pages, I decided that 'The Bronze Praetorian' was fine as a stand alone piece or as the introduction to a future (book), a compilation of short stories. 
 

 The Prelude - 1973

(To Becoming an Adult)


This is a non-fiction story.  Although, the Author tells the story as an observer, the Author is the first boy of whom he speaks.  

The Jail in Jackson, Kentucky
The morning light splashed into the little room as he sat there, his chin on his chest, asleep.  Sleep however, had not come easy during the night.  The chair he was sitting in was very uncomfortable and his leg had hurt him awful.  His two companions were sound asleep, lying on the only bed in the room, a small cot.  Upon being locked in, they had immediately staked claim, curled up back-to-back and went to sleep. 

The long cold night was now coming to an end, and the small town of Jackson would soon be awake.  The boys would have to face the judge.  Everyone would know.  The gossip would travel fast, and spread across the entire County.  As sounds of a new day drifted across the streets of the small town, the boy in the chair hugged himself tightly against the cold autumn air. Sickened by the damp moldy smell, sleepily he scanned the dingy, dungeon of a room.  Reaching down to massage his injured leg, he shacked his head in self-disgust.  Ashamed, he looked at the ceiling, reflecting.    

Late April, the year before, the boy and his family had stood in the drizzling rain while the Marine Bugler played Taps.  The crack of the 21 gun salute echoed off the hills of the Eastern Kentucky country side.  His Father, a Husband, Brother, Retired Marine and Coal Truck Driver was being laid to rest last.  Over the next few months, after the loss of his Dad, the boy became angrier, more deviant, and less spiritual.  He began to search for his own identity.  He also felt it was his duty and responsibility to become the protector of his younger siblings.  At times he even scolded his elder Sister for what he felt where inappropriate behaviors.  He was soon dubbed, ‘The Little Daddy’.  This did little to discourage him.  He simply became more determined and focused.  On more than one occasion he had had scuffles with classmates about their teasing and verbal abuse of his younger brothers.  He was soon torn between his teenage commitment to following Jesus and his own worldly ideals.
The cool autumn air was sweeping through the trees of the Eastern Kentucky Hills, burning away the Chlorophyll.  The once green leaves of the Maple Tree were now bright red.  The leaves of oak and others were turning browns and yellows; there were also purple patches here and there.  The pines and cedar trees revealed themselves by their shade of deep green.  Summer had passed, and colder weather was on its way.  Halloween was just a few weeks away, then Thanks-Giving followed by Christmas.  None of which would be the same as they had been in years past.  Many previous Holidays had been wonderful, filled with fun and laughter, food, family and friends.  There had been some however, that had not been so great.  Just as others in the Coal Mining Country had, the boy’s family suffered through rough times as well. 
The night before; the boy and four of his high school buddies started the evening by drinking beer.  This was a big deal.  Not just a big deal, because all but one was under age, Breathitt County was dry.  No beer, liquor or wine could be sold anywhere in the County, it had be so for many years.  The five of them had piled into the Impala that one of the boy’s father had let him borrow, as he regularly did.  After getting their beer from a local Bootlegger, the boys drove to a special place.  Their special place was high upon a hill along a fire break, overlooking Jackson and the surrounding communities.   They spent much of the early evening telling jokes, talking about girls, and just drinking beer.  The boy remembered he had not liked the taste of the beer, nor did he like the idea of getting drunk.  His father had been an alcoholic and he did not want to ever be like that.  Not able to finish the beer he had given it to one of his buddies.  Soon the group began to talk about food and realized they were getting hungry.  Scraping together a few dollars, they headed for the only place in town to get burgers and fries.  Dairy Queen was on Hwy 15, just across from Pan Bowl Lake.  While sitting in the car, someone noticed the gas tank was nearly empty.  The driver and one of the other boys were discussing where they might get some gas.  There was no money left to buy gas. The other three soon realized, getting gas meant stealing it.  Not everyone agreed this was a good idea.  The boy was also against it, but he was just along for the ride.  He would not get involved. 
A few minutes later, the five found themselves in a dark parking lot behind the only Drug Store in town.  The driver and one of the boys in the backseat got out.  They opened the trunk and found a piece of hose and an empty Clorox jug.    In the dim light, the boy and his two friends could see the pair as they made several trips back and forth.  They were taking gas from a pickup parked on the other side of the lot.  Another car was between their car and the pickup.  The pair began to become over confident and was making too much noise.  Finally, the other boy in the back seat called out to them to stop.  He insisted in a whispering voice that they had taken enough, and it was time to get out of there.  When they did not stop he decided to get out of the car.  Almost immediately, there was a flash of light and a loud explosion.  That was a gunshot thought the boy.  Instantly, the older boy in the front seat crouched down under the dash board.  The boy wondered what had just happened to his friends outside.  He was afraid that one of them had been shot.  What should he do?  Quietly he opened the door on the driver’s side rear and stepped out.  The car was very close to the building, so he put his back against the wall.  Looking around for his friend, he softly called out his name.  Moving slowly along the wall, he looked behind the car and then out into the parking lot.  No one was there.  Maybe someone was behind the pickup, shot and bleeding.  Deciding to check it out, he moved away from the wall.  He had taken only a couple of steps when the pavement to his right seemed to explode.  His heart nearly came out of his chest.  He quickly sprinted to the far side of other car and fell to the ground.  No one was there either.  As he lay there flat on his stomach, he wondered what to do.  Just then, there was another bright flash, explosion and an awful pain in his left leg.  It felt like hi entire leg had been blown off.  He reached down to touch his leg finding it was still there.  With his leg hurting like hell, he jumped up and scurried around behind the pickup.  Again, no one was there!  Lying on the ground next to him was the Clorox jug.  Picking it up, he threw it into the weeds.  The piece of hose was still in the gas tank.  He tossed it the weeds as well.  Reaching up, he felt around for the gas cap.  He was thinking he could make it look like no one had been stealing gas.  He couldn’t find the cap.
The old man that lived above the drug store stepped around the front of the pickup.  With his hand in his coat pocket, he told the boy to get up.  “Don’t make me shoot you boy!”  The boy got to his feet slowly remarking that he had already been shot.  The old man dismissed it by saying that the boy wasn’t hurt, he had used bird-shot.  Within minutes, a County Deputy Sheriff was there.  The boy and his friend from the front seat stood there, their backs against the car.  The Deputy had quickly walked forward and in an angry voice, and called the older boy by name.  He demanded to know what was going on.  The old man spoke up, telling him about the stealing of his gas.  Again the Deputy confronted the older boy. 
“Where are the other two boys?” 
He shouted.  Hitting him with a flashlight, he asked the question again.  The boy’s friend had, had no idea.  Without thinking, the boy barked out;
“Hey! You can’t do that!” 
The Deputy responded by; hitting him in the mouth with his fist and shouting,
“Shut up boy, I can do anything I want!” 
He then shoved the two into the back seat of his car and left the parking lot.  Driving through town, he crossed the river to Hwy 15.  Stopping directly in front of the corner gas station, he got out of the car.  Calling out their names, he told the other two boys to come out.  He didn’t have to wait very long.  The two came out of the gas station and walked to the Deputy.  Moments later, they were all in the jail.  The older boy however, wasn’t with them and they didn’t know where he had been taken.
Author’s Note:  The following morning, the three of us were removed from the dungeon-of-a-cell and taken up stairs. This cell was much larger and brighter. Breakfast was brought.  Later on that day, we found ourselves standing in the Judge’s Office. I, now vaguely recall one of my Uncles was there as was the Fathers of the other two boys. I cannot speak for them, but I was scared. I was afraid that I had really screwed up my life. We were scolded by the Judge. He lectured us on the possible consequences of our actions. Before sending us home; he told us we could have avoided the incident. He said that we could have called someone or even just have asked for some gas to get home. Stealing the gas was not only stupid, it was unnecessary. On Monday, we all returned to school, and just as I had feared, most everyone knew about the incident. For several weeks we were ribbed about sealing the gas.

I never knew want had happened to the eighteen year old boy. I had hoped he fared as well as we did. The boy, who left made it home. To this day I have never spoken his name, and believe no one else but us knew he was there.
And so… The story has no ending. It is a life lesson that I have carried throughout.


 


The Cigarette



This Fictional Short-Short Story below was written after hearing about an actual event that involved My Grandfather, John Paterno.



The Cigarette

The German Soldier aimed his Mouser rifle and squeezed the trigger. The cartridge exploded inside the chamber sending the bullet spiraling through the barrel. Lightning fast, the lead bullet sped across no- man’s land.

Private John (Giovanni) Paterno and his friend Maurice sat crouched in the mud. They and other allied Soldiers were in their trenches, just a few hundred feet opposite the German lines. Finishing a can of Navy beans, John tossed the can aside. Rubbing his stomach he commented how full and satisfied he felt.

“I don’t think I have ever eaten anything so delicious in my life.” He laughed. His friend laughed with him. The two men sat there for several minutes taking about what ever came to mind. John was looking forward to getting home. His father had a pepper farm in New Jersey. Pepper farming was not at all bad. John also wondered about his brother Henry. Henry was also in France.

John stretched out his arms and yawned. “Somewhere out there is my brother,” he said, throwing his thumb over his shoulder. “What wouldn’t I give for cigarette right now?”

Maurice agreed. Fishing around in his pockets, John found his last cigarette. Showing it off, he smoothed the crumpled thing, being careful to not lose any of the tobacco inside. Knowing he had no match, he asked Maurice if he had one. Maurice patted his right breast pocket and then his left. Smiling, he lifted the flap. Reaching inside he produced a small box. Pushing it open, he showed the contents to John. There was but one match remaining in the box. Maurice retrieved the match, motioning John to come closer. Both men cupped their hands around the cigarette and match. Pulling the match along the side of the box, Maurice said a quite prayer. The match came to life. John excitedly puffed on the cigarette tasting the stale but flavorful tobacco. Maurice chuckled, blowing out the still lite match. Standing fully erect, John took a long pleasant drag on the cigarette. He let the warm sun shine on his face, slowly letting the smoke escape from his lungs and out through his mouth. He smiled.

The wall of the trench erupted!, spiting dirt and grime into John’s eyes. As he fell to his face in the muddy trench, he heard the faint crack of a rifle. Maurice quickly grabbed John by his shoulders and rolled him over. John slowly opened his eyes, wiping the mud away. “Nearly lost your head there!” Maurice laughed. Getting to his feet, careful to stay low, John sat on the nearest box. Maurice sat down next to him. A moment later Maurice began to laugh loudly, pointing at John’s hand. Looking down, John realized the still lit cigarette was in his hand. Laughing, he handed the cigarette to Maurice.

“Your turn, my good friend.” He said.

Fin







The Café
His arms around her neck, the little boy was holding tight to the woman.  She and her daughter, hand in hand were running; splashing across the distance to the front door of the little café.  They and others had been on the Grey Hound Bus that was just outside.  The driver and another man were busy taking the luggage from the luggage compartment. The passengers watched as their belongings were placed on the porch. The Bus had stopped there due to engine trouble.  The Bus Driver would later come into the café and call headquarters for another bus. The woman walked across the small room to a booth in the corner.  Setting the little boy down on the bench, she reached down to help her daughter sit on the bench across from them.  A young woman, the waitress came over to the three and asked the woman is she would like a cup of coffee, to which the woman replied, she did.  Pouring the coffee the waitress asked if there was anything else she could get for them.  The woman thanked her saying no that the coffee was all she wanted.  Other people from the bus were coming into the café, shanking the rain from their clothes as they entered.  The rain was coming down very hard and the heavy drops made a loud pounding noise on the café’s tin roof.  The woman rummaged around in the large purse; finding her cigarettes she took one from the package.  With her hands shaking nervously, she lighted it. 

The rain continued falling as the morning hours gave way to the afternoon.  Looking at the clock over the door, the woman saw that it was now just past 1 o’clock.  She got the attention of the waitress and ordered lunch for her and the two children.  The woman asked someone sitting close by, if they had heard when the other bus was going to be there.  The person remarked that they had not heard anything.  The woman wished that it would get there soon.  She had hoped to be far by now, glancing at the clock once more. 

The man in uniform came through the door first, followed close behind by two other men.  The woman, recognizing the three men; quickly and quietly told the boy and girl to hide under the table. Turning her face away from the door, she hoped she would not be seen.  A brief moment later the man in the uniform sat down inside the booth across from her.  Several minutes passed by before he spoke.  The woman kept her eyes cast down and away from him.  She did not want to speak, nor even look at this man, her husband.  Talking quietly but firmly he told the two children to come out from under the table and sit next to him.  They both complied.  The two men who had entered the café with her husband had been at the bar.  Seemingly on cue; the man stood up from the bench.  Exiting the booth he grabbed for his son.  Holding him in one arm he took the hand of his daughter and walked briskly across the floor toward the door.  The woman immediately rose to her feet shouting at the man to not take her children.  Her shouting gave way to screaming as tears fell down her face.  One of the men who had entered the café with her husband, interceded by standing in front of her, saying that everything was going to be alright.  The rain had now slowed to just a drizzle as the man placed the two children into the back seat of the car.  They both were crying as they watched their Father, holding their Mother by her arms, while he spoke to her in a loud voice.  All three of the men got into the car and drove off.  The woman was left there standing in the rain.  She was still screaming for the man to not take her children.
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