by Joe Holt
Mush was a combat engineer. Ray Mush. His real name was Ray Maslanka, but I only discovered that a week or so after I met him. Mail call I think. There was a team of engineers attached to India Company for the operation. Three or four guys. Somehow Mush stood out from the others.
Everybody knows that combat engineers are all nuts. Not just goofy, but downright scary at times. We all enjoy a good explosion from time to time. Especially when were the ones doing the exploding, but when an engineer gets the notion to blow something up its so calculated it borders on the sinister. I normally confined my demolition activity to tossing grenades in holes or buildings. Any real cool demolitions went to them. I wonder what selection process they went through? Their psychological profiles must be something to see.
I was very impressed on Hastings when they were finally given the green light to clear a helozone in the jungle. Wed been flailing away with K-bars and Fillipino machetes for hours trying to clear any space at all, and when we were finally equipped with chain saws the task got only moderately quicker. Finally somebody turned the engineers loose. The explosions didnt do our nerves any good, but they did blow the shit out of the jungle. This event alone was all I needed to prove my attitude about engineers. You only had to see the look on their faces to understand. They were in a frenzy. They didnt just blow trees down, they felt the need to launch each tree to an ever increasing height. They were considerate enought to yell "Fire in the hole!" before each blast, but more than a few times they yelled only a second or two before ignition. We actually had some minor casualties from flying wood and gravel.
Poor McGuire only wanted to hobble into the jungle a few feet to take a pee. Hed already been hit a couple of times on a couple of different occasions the day before. He had pressure bandages on two or three parts of his body. One around his head, which is why he probably never heard the engineers yell. One of the most heartbreaking memories I have of that day was the vision of McGuire stumbling out of the bushes trying to button up his trousers with his only good hand, near tears, with a new small stream of blood on his shirt. "I cant even take a pee without getting hit!"
Late that afternoon, when we were consolidating our personnel and forming our perimeter for the night, was the first time I really got to know Mush. The engineers had been given the position next to mine. They were downright satisfied with their days performance, and Ray just wanted to talk about it. From the minute they dropped their packs till the sun went down Mush kept jabbering. The other guys talked to some extent, but Mush was the star of the party...or at least he thought so. Dont get me wrong. Mush was a likable fella, but he was so damn full of himself and had so much energy it was downright irritating. At least he shut up when the sun went down. I was numb from exhaustion, but I can only figure that Mush was hyper because hed been allowed to satisfy his lust for destruction that day.
Once the operation was completed I didnt see much of Mush. His team had been detached from our Company. We had other engineers with us on various different missions, and they were all just not quite normal, but none of them seemed as nuts as Mush.
A month or two later I was transferred to 1/5. To mortars. Mortars was a pretty good billet. We stayed with the CP group. We didnt have to do patrols. I got a lot of sleep I wouldnt be getting if I was still in a Platoon.
In the Spring Charlie Company was mounting up for a big operation. It took us a full day to prepare. Different units were being attached to us. FOs. Engineers. Various other communication guys. Naval gunfire and Air support. Even a liaison guy for the Koreans. Just before dawn we were all squared away and we were told to muster in a particular squad tent till the helos arrived. As I lifted the tent flap to enter somebody shined a flashlight right in my face. Before I could complain someone shouted from the dark.
"Jesus Christ, weve had the big green weeny this time! I know this guy, and wherever he goes, theres trouble!"
It was Mush. I recognized the voice, and his attitude and volume was unmistakable. I was happy to see him, but strangely enough I felt the same sentiments toward him. My most vivid memories of him were connected to those disasterous few days with India Company. We immediaely started comparing war stories. More for the benefit of the other guys rather than ourselves. We were old salts and we were trying to convince anyone that would listen. Within an hour we were airborne. Twenty minutes after that we landed, and spent the next week or two slogging around the countryside playing tag with the gooks.
In the late afternoons or evenings the Company would set up a perimeter for the night. Mush would normally set in somewhere in my vicinity or I would do the same near him. We felt comfortable around each other. Its not that we were friends, but wed had common experiences so we felt familiar. He was proud when Id tell crazy stories about him. It didnt take long before most guys knew goofy Mush, but there was one incident that absolutely convinced everybody that he was truly scary.
On this particular day we set in early enough so we had a couple of hours of daylight left. Time to start fires and cook stuff. Time to dry our socks. Time to just be social. Because I was in mortars I wasnt actually required to be on the perimeter so I could flop almost anywhere I wanted to. I decided to drop my pack next to some sort of hedge. A raggedy, sparse sort of hedge. About twenty feet long and no more than four feet high.
It was made up of bushes Id only seen in Vietnam. Most guys remember them. This type of bush had tiny leaves lining both sides of the fronds. They were very fragile looking, but their most intriguing characteristic was that if you touched one of the fronds, theyd wilt. All the leaves on that particular branch would just sort of collapse. The first bush of this sort Id seen really got me wondering. What sort of magic, Mother Nature type of shit, was this? A bush that withers when you touch it? This is too cool! After Id seen my first one it was like most other things...when youve seen one, youve seenem all. It got boring real quick. We all knew what they were and what they did. Except Mush.
I was sitting down with a can of Chicken and Noodles heating up on my C-rat stove in front of me. Mush came walking over just to shoot the shit, Im sure, but as he approached I casually reached out and touched a branch on the hedge. It wilted. It shrunk to about half its original size. Mush stopped in his tracks. He first stared at me, then the wilted leaves, then me again. In a very low tone of voice he asked,
"How da fuck you do that?"
"Just now. What you did with that bush?"
"What? This?", as I touched another frond. It wilted immediately.
He stared at me like I was the devil himself. I couldnt believe hed never seen this type of bush before. He was obviously confused.
"Shit Mush. You musta seen these things before. Theyre all over the place."
Ray reached over very slowly and touched one of the branches. Again, it drooped. He looked like he was going to jump out of his skin. He touched another, then another all with the same result.
"Howzat do that?"
"I dunno. It just does."
Everybody in the vicinity looked on as Mush turned around, walked over to his pack, took his entrenching tool out of its case, then opened it up to the straight position. He was holding it like a baseball bat when he walked back towards me. He had the craziest look in his eye. For just a second I thought he was going to go after me with it, but as he got to the hedge he started chopping at it. Violently. Faster and faster. Cutting it. Chopping it. Clubbing it. Once or twice he dropped the E tool and stooped to yank the remainder of a bush out of the ground. I picked up my noodles and got out of the way. Dirt and leaves were flying everywhere. Five or ten minutes went by. Hed gone completely looney. Eyes wide as saucers. Grunting away at the hedge. From one end to the other. He left nothing. By the time hed completely demolished the entire hedge he was out of breath and wringing with sweat.
Hed aquired an audience for the last few minutes of his frenzy, but he was oblivious to anything or anybody but the hedge. You could tell by the looks on everybodys face that he had us worried. Me most of all.
He stood looking at the chewed up strip of earth for a minute or so. Then he walked back over to his pack and just plopped down in a heap. He sat there, panting, staring at where the hedge had been.
I was into my fruit cocktail by now so I just sidled up to Mush and said,
"You OK Mush? What the fuck was that all about?"
He was still staring away, but about ten seconds later he looked up at me with a real dull look in his eyes and said,
"I hate anything I dont understand."
Like I said before, Mush wasnt just nuts, he was scary.