A Season for War

They had overcome him in the end, tenaciously...taking him down.

Their heavy shots splashed into him...with that courageous passion

peculiar to hunters.

—James Salter

 

 

Billy and I potshot 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 and remember saying,
If it had flown, it might have lived. A loon, he said

without taking it. They don’t often range in Kansas

and they’re never in season. Last time I saw Billy was Đà Nẵng.
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 M16s.

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 Hán River. Shoot ’em, he said through my headset.

Ducks on a pond. I aimed far to the side. That night,
at the Oceanside Bar, between chugs of Tiger Beer, Billy teased, You’re still a lousy shot, Doctor. Billy stayed another tour,
rigged an M60 machine gun in place of the tandem seat—

converted his observation plane into attack aircraft 
By tilting or turning, it became a lethal weapon
until diving within range of an AK-47, Billy took a round in his chest. He radioed for escort. Huey gunship pilots

called through their mics, 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. 

                —Billy's name is on The Wall: Panel 11E, Line 63