Billy and I pot-shot what we mistook for a duck
back in 7th grade at Santa Fe Lake in Neosho County.
The bird dove, surfaced for air, dove and surfaced again,
forced down by salvos of # 6 bird shot until it floated
and washed to shore. I presented the bird to my father
like a sinner’s offering to his Priest and remember saying,
If it had flown, it might have lived. A loon, father said
without taking it. They don’t often range in Kansas
and they’re never in season. Last time I saw Billy was Da Nang.
A forward air controller flying O-1E Bird Dogs, he marked
VC positions with the bright smoke of white phosphorus rockets.
I flew one mission. Rode the tandem seat. We packed M-16’s.
He controlled the aircraft by working the stick with his knees—
hands free to fire through pop-open windows. 2 Sampans,
ferrying Vietnamese dressed in black, motored across
the Han River. Shoot ‘em, he said through my headset.
Ducks on a pond. I aimed far to the side. That night,
at an Oceanside bar between chugs of Tiger Beer, Billy teased,
You’re still a lousy shot, Doctor. Billy stayed another tour,
rigged an M-60 machinegun in place of the tandem seat—
converted his observation plane into an attack aircraft,
so by tilting or turning, they became a lethal weapon
until diving within range of an AK-47 when Billy took a round
in his chest. He radioed for escort. Huey gunship pilots
called through their mikes, You’re losing altitude Captain,
head for the sea. Billy and his O-1E splashed on the surf,
rode the breakers upright until lifted onto China Beach,
an open spread of sand as fine and white as altar cloth.
~ HC Palmer
Note: China Beach is a recreational area near the Da Nang Air Base used for R and R by American troops during the Vietnam War.