"Hey, Joe!" Is the story of a guy that wants his buddy's girl. A great song by Carl Smith.
Though we've been the best of friends
This is where our friendship ends.
I gotta have that dolly for my own."
A TIME OUT OF LIFE
Our platoon was pinned down by a VC sniper hidden on a hill at the end of the valley. No one had been able to get a hard fix on his location. It was Thanksgiving Day in 1965 but no one was eating turkey. We were in a long valley near the Phu Bai airfield trying to locate a Viet Cong force that had been sending harassing fire at planes taking off and landing.
Earlier the lieutenant had tried to send out a small patrol and the SOB picked off two of them before they even reached the tree line. The LT shook his head and walked over to where I was cleaning my rifle.
The Marines at that time were using Winchester Model 70 30.06 rifles for sniper work. This was essentially a target rifle and they had acquired a number of them over the previous decade. There were complaints that the match grade ammo would cause supply problems but for now that had been overruled. The following year would see a change to the M40, which was based on a Remington model 700-40.
I'd learned to shoot with a Winchester Model 70 30.06 growing up in the hill country of west Texas, so this was essentially the same rifle I had at home. Antelope were real spooky so you had to stand off quite a ways—and the heavy barrel was great for varmints, such as gophers. I knew what I could do with what I grew up with. The addition of the eight-power Unertl scope gave me a much longer effective range than the 2.75X Redfield scope I had at home.
"Danny, anything you can do to help us out?"
I'd been listening to the few shots the sniper had fired and I had thought a lot about the angles involved in the shots at the patrol.
"Yeah, LT, I think so. I'd guess he's within fifty yards of that clump of rocks on the left side of the valley and about half way up the hill. Put a couple of guys quartering around that area with binoculars and have them let me know if they see any movement at all."
We looked over the map and it was a good twelve hundred yards to the rocks. I'd never sighted the Winchester for more than a thousand yards.
After twenty minutes or so, Billy, the lieutenant's radio operator leaned over, "Danny, I saw something move about twenty-five yards to the upper left of the rocks." Laughing a bit nervously, he added, "Hell, it was probably just an animal or something."
"Yeah," I thought, " ... maybe."
I got in a comfortable position and turned the knob for a thousand yards. If I did find a target I'd have to wing it for the over-distance. I started at the rocks and slowly moved up and to the left, looking carefully at every inch of the terrain. Finally I saw an anomaly, a straight line. Deciding it was the barrel of the VC sniper's, rifle I moved the aiming point slightly for where his head should be located in relation to the barrel. I was assuming he was right handed ... if not, I'd miss.
There was no wind; it was dead calm and hot. I figured he was about fifty yards higher than I was and adjusted for that. Flashing back to the Sniper manual (the military had a manual for everything, even on how to dig latrines) I remembered the example. For a scope sighted for a target at 500 yards, to hit another, unsighted target at 600 yards would be a hold off of twenty-five inches. That worked out pretty good for this target since I was sighted in for a thousand yards and I was taking a shot at close to twelve hundred I wanted to shoot about fifty inches higher than where I guessed his head would be.
I breathed out to the two guys with the binoculars,"Okay, watch."
A sniper is a one shot killer. The average grunt shot upwards of fifty thousand rounds for each enemy kill ... the average sniper's number was one point three rounds—less than a quarter's worth of ammunition.
Fear played a big part in what I was doing. All too frequently I would be gently easing back on the trigger and have the sense of a VC sniper taking aim at me. I handled it—controlling my fear was the name of the game. It was all about being in the zone: managing my breathing by taking slow, steady deliberate breaths. I could feel my heart rate slow and my body coming to a completely relaxed state.
When it was right, I was one hundred per cent in the zone. For that moment time stops, I would feel alive with some nagging sense that I wouldn't be staying that way for long. That moment would seem to last forever for me ... a time out of life. Then I would pull the trigger and know I had taken a man's life.
Looking through a scope at a target is something quite personal. I would watch some guy wipe his nose with his sleeve or the sweat off his brow with his hand. Sometimes I would watch the eyes shift and I would wonder what he was thinking about ... and whether he was married and had kids. Was he looking at me ... wondering what I was thinking? Wondering if I had a wife? Sometimes I just thought too damn much. It was best to think of this as an intellectual exercise of the dynamics of trajectory, speed and the play of the elements on the bullet on its way to its own violent death.
I eased gently on the hair trigger, past images in my head of the startled leap of an antelope made when hit with a high-power rifle. In another world now, I barely heard the shot or the quick kick of the recoil. I'd held steady and had a quick flash of something falling back, streaks of red coating the clump of grass he'd been behind.
I looked over at Billy and he nodded, not saying anything. The LT put his hand on my shoulder and walked away, sending another patrol out to see if the sniper had any documents. I lay down, my head on my pack and looked at the sunlight making a dappled pattern through the trees. Lighting up a smoke my body and mind shut down. I went somewhere that no one ever went with me: a lonely place, a place of cold and ice.
I remembered what the gunnery sergeant at the sniper school told us he had heard overheard some anonymous Marine captain say to some friends in a bar one night in Saigon:
"You have to be strong enough to endure lying in the weeds day after day, letting the bugs crawl over you and bite you, letting the sun cook you and the rain boil you, shitting and pissing in your pants. Lying there because you know that Charlie's coming and you're gonna kill him."
No one spoke to me—they had learned not to. Sure, I heard what they said, "He's a cold-hearted son-of-a-bitch." A nurse I'd spent a few days with in Saigon told me my eyes were the hard blue of glacier ice ... but colder. She loved me a little but I don't think she liked me very much.
Well, hell, I knew I was cold-hearted. I never could figure out how I felt about killing people for a living. I had twenty-two kills with twenty-three bullets. The one miss was when I thought I could get an officer standing next to an enemy sniper. I took the sure shot and tried a snap shot at the officer but I'd over-compensated and missed him.
Three weeks later I'd mustered out and was flying home. My granddad was picking me up at the airport in Austin and driving me home to his ranch west of Bandera. I didn't want to come back and live in town, like I'd done before I moved to the ranch. I was now twenty-seven and starting over with my life. On the flight home I kept thinking about my skills: I could ride bulls and broncs and I knew how to kill people from a thousand yards with one shot.
BACK AT THE RANCH
Daddy Jim was standing there when I got off the plane. He was a big guy with thinning curly brown hair running to gray and a ready grin. He'd taken over most of the running of the ranch since I'd left. He gave me a hug that 'bout broke a rib or two, but damn, it felt good. It felt like he had lost none of his legendary strength during the time I'd been killing people over in 'Nam. For a guy in his early seventies, he looked damn good.
"Danny, I'm sure glad to have you home, son. You were missed around here."
I was glad to see he brought my truck to pick me up. After my folks were killed in a car crash when I was fourteen, I moved out to the ranch to live with my grandparents. I was pretty down on life and granddad could see that. He found a forty-eight Ford pickup and helped me restore it. We put a lot of time on it together and became very close.
Driving home in my truck we talked and I felt a slight easing in the pent-up tension of the last four years. Daddy Jim—we had always called him that—was one of the good guys. He was patient to a fault, never meddled; yet he always seemed to be there when anyone needed him. About a year after I moved in with them, grandma died of cancer and it was the two of us against the world.
I had a fair amount of mustering out pay—it's hard to spend money out in the boonies of 'Nam. I used some of it to help Daddy Jim get the ranch fixed up a bit. He'd mostly given up on cattle before I had moved in with him and concentrated on breeding bulls for the rodeo. It was pretty good money but more importantly it kept him happy. His animals always scored pretty well at the various rodeos.
Once a bull has shown some talent it can get entered at some of the smaller rodeos. An average bull makes two/three hundred per out in early rounds and a top bull can earn upwards of six hundred for each out in the finals. It can go as high as a hundred grand winning top bull of the year. For a bull with a good reputation each straw of semen can go for several thousand dollars.
I was raised with rodeos even before I moved out to Daddy Jim's place. I would go with him if it were close enough. In high school I was on the rodeo team and was actually quite good at it. I did a little of everything but I liked the bull riding and bareback broncs.
I turned professional after high school and started making some money at it. Then at a rodeo down at Uvalde I got in a fight over a girl in some no name, lowlife bar. I put a guy in the hospital and the sheriff down there gave me a choice of the Army or the jail. I did him one better and signed up for the Marines. I wasn't thinking that four years is a hell of a lot longer than three and a tour of duty in 'Nam as a sniper wouldn't be a hell of a lot of fun. The hard part of it was I never woulda even looked at that gal if I hadn't been three sheets to the wind.
I didn't really want to get back to doing the rodeo—the pain and lifestyle just didn't appeal to me anymore. I talked to Daddy Jim and we agreed that he would handle everything connected with breeding and I would handle all the rodeo stuff. We had a good reputation so it was easier than it could have been if I was just starting up. I would get entries and make sure the animals were transported and treated right. This was a good area to work out of; Bandera considered itself, "The Cowboy Capitol of the World."
The winter tour ran from January through May and the summer one was June through September. I would travel to most of the local events around Texas and Oklahoma and to the rodeos where we had top bulls entered. We had two guys that worked with us that would drive the trucks and take care of the animals. Occasionally we had to ship some with the commercial transporters when we had more entries—this would be at the larger rodeos. We did a few PBR events—the Professional Bull Riders—and I wanted to focus more on this part of the rodeo tour than granddad had.
I settled into a routine. The trips were fun since I knew a lot of people—many of them since I was a kid. People that I didn't know stopped me and asked about Daddy Jim ... everyone called him that. I met a girl in Prescott at the Prescott Frontier Days on the Fourth of July and we were and item until her ex won a couple of events at the Dodge City roundup in early August. She was one of the camp followers that hang around. Truth be told by the time we got to Dodge I was happy to get shucked of her—she was getting a bit too sticky. She was hot though. If a gal's only gonna have one talent, hers was a good one to have.
I was finally able to relax for a while—the last four months were our slack season. I needed an office so I knocked the wall down between my room and the bedroom next to it and incorporated a hall bathroom. I put the office area in the corner where I had light from both morning sun and the late afternoon. It worked out well—I wasn't planning on moving any time soon. It looked quite nice and I spent a lot of time relaxing there.
I started going out on Friday and Saturday nights ... mostly I went to the Silver Dollar Saloon in downtown Bandera. It was a popular place; the dance floor was small and covered with sawdust but it was a lot of fun. It was really more honky-tonk than dance hall but they did pull in great bands. The place had been around since the thirties—my mom and dad used to go there and dance.
It must have been the third time I was there—sometime in mid-November—I ran into an old friend of mine ... more of a drinking buddy really. I think he considered me more of a friend than I did of him. In fact, when I ran into him I had to stop and think of his name. I knew it was Joe something ... yeah, Joe Atkins.
I waved to him and held my hand out to shake with him but he passed right on by and grabbed me in a big bear hug. Seeing as how I wasn't really a touchy-feely kind of guy, I stepped back and gave him that thousand—yard stare you get after a few years in prison. Except in 'Nam it only took a couple of months ... if you lived that long.
He backed off; looking embarrassed, and stammered something about getting a couple of beers. I thought about him while he was gone. He was a nice enough guy but I'd always considered him not to have much depth. It was like he was an actor playing a role he wasn't familiar with. He had an off-hand, somewhat diffident manner that made me edgy.
As he walked back with two beers, a Shiner Bock and a Pearl, I laughed to myself as I remembered that he had trouble making decisions. Even though he always did well in school, it was like he didn't even know how to spell decisive. This was typical of him, bringing two different beers just to make sure I was happy.
"Danny, I wasn't sure what you wanted so I got one of each. Is that okay?"
Yeah, Joe, that's okay. I didn't answer—just took the Pearl since it was closer. I sure didn't have problems making decisions, especially about which beer to drink—my rule #1 was to always grab the closest beer in case there wasn't enough to go around.
We chatted for a bit. Joe was working as a teller for one of the two banks in town. I told him what I had been doing. For not having seen each other in four years, we seemed to catch up pretty fast.
"Hey, Danny! What was it really like over there; I mean in that place in Asia somewhere?"
Like he would understand. Hell, I'm not sure I did. "Hey, Joe! It was great. I got to see the jungle and everything. But it was mostly just bullshit, you know how it is."
Joe nodded, wisely, like he'd been there through it all. I pictured him being in the zone, his life flow ebbing, slowing, his body becoming still. The breathing cycle taking four or five seconds, inhale, one, exhale, two with the shot coming in a two to three second pause after the exhale when the body is at it stillest point. That pause could be extended for up to ten seconds without undue stress, but usually, two or three seconds was plenty. On the start of the exhalation cycle he would place his finger on the trigger, and as the body stilled, start the easy squeeze.
If the scope continued to show a good target he would continue with a steady pressure on the trigger. As the firing pin sent the round off to its final destination he would keep the trigger all the way back with his head held firmly to the stock. He would keep his muscles relaxed and continue to look through the scope tube, avoiding any reaction to the sound or recoil. After the recoil finished he would release the trigger and think about the death that was the object of the exercise. Those deaths would add up and...
"Danny, hey, you okay?"
"Yeah, Joe. It was all bullshit."
The waitress walked by with a tray full of beers for another table. I reached up and took one, winning a wink and a smile from her. We'd been doing some half-hearted flirting on the nights we were both there. She was the younger sister of a girl I'd dated in high school.
Joe and I chatted for a bit—he was rambling on and on about something. Then some key word filtering through my musings made me pay attention again.
" ... anyway, she's real good lookin'. We're kinda engaged, but, well, I haven't exactly asked her. I want to, I mean I really want to ask her but I'm hoping I'll get promoted to Senior Teller at the end of the year and I'll be making a lot more money. What do you think, old buddy?"
"Well, Joe, I guess I'd have to see her. I mean, you don't want to make a mistake, do you?" Like I cared.
Joe responded, sounding excited, "Yeah, that's a great idea, Danny. Hey, we are coming tomorrow night for the band. Johnny Duncan will be playing—it should be a big crowd but I can save you room at the table. This will be great. You can meet Angie—that's my girl, Angie Seldon—and we can have a lot of fun.
I figured, what the hell, I could always find some girl to pick up. "Sure, Joe. That sounds like fun." Like tearing wings off flies and killing people for a living was fun.
I showed up a little late the next night. I had a big blue roan mare, Donna (don't ask—that was the name of the first girl I'd been with in high school), and hadn't been giving her enough work so I took her on a long ride in the afternoon, ignoring the light rain and my slicker. I hadn't slept well the night before—I kept seeing myself back in-country, somehow knowing that a Cong sniper was in the zone, inhaling, exhaling ... and I woke up in a cold sweat. I never had those dreams while I was over there but lately they were coming all too often. Maybe two or three times a week I'd wake up somewhere around oh dark thirty and never get back to sleep.
Feeling in a dark mood I almost didn't go but when it came to staying home and drinking beer or going out and drinking it, I decided on the latter. In my sour mood I put on black jeans and a black, long sleeved shirt and jammed on well-worn black Justin boots and my fairly new Stetson hat. The last two of these were from my rodeo days and dressing in black had always been my trademark. In that dark mood I went to meet Joe and his soon-to-be fiancée, driving my fire engine red truck.
SILVER DOLLAR SALOON
Now come on Joe let's make a deal
Let me dance with her to see if she is real.
She's the cutest girl I've ever seen,
I'll tell you face to face I mean to steal her from you.
The rain had ended and it was actually a nice night. Not warm by any means but comfortably cool in my long sleeved shirt. When I walked in the band was in the middle of tuning up. There was a lot of noise from everyone getting settled and making sure they had beer in hand.
Joe saw me walking in and was suddenly pulling on my arm towards a table next to the dance floor. He was walking a bit unsteady so he must have gotten there early to hold the table. I'd say four beers for sure. When I saw Joe's girl sitting at the table, looking up expectantly towards us, I came to an abrupt stop, almost falling as Joe kept pulling on my arm.
It was like driving in the dark all night for hours and hours and coming over a hill to see the first blaze of the glowing dawn. All around everything would be gray, dull and listless—the bright morning sun becoming the world. It was like that the first time I saw Angie. It wasn't the parts—they were nice but it was the package that hit me all at once. Her brows were a bit too thick, a face slightly too round, lips naturally the red of cherry wine and a mouth a tad too wide but alive now with a ready smile.
As I straightened I became aware of her long, thick coal black hair flowing over her shoulders and her eyes ... her violet eyes taking my heart captive with a lurch that startled me. We stared at each other for a moment—I'd never seen violet eyes before. I'd heard one time that Elizabeth Taylor had eyes like this ... but then I'd never seen her up close and personal.
We stared and her smile slowly faded—later she told me she had never seen such icy blue eyes, and she felt a cold chill down her back that froze her smile.
Joe was standing there confused, looking at his girl then at me ... then back at Angie again. He gave it a brave shot—for him—and started with the introductions. I briefly shook hands with her, the hand stronger and rougher that I would have expected from such a lovely, such a feminine girl. She was medium height with a not overly large bust and hips just wide enough to give the promise of child bearing.
I sat there for a while as Joe talked to her about something—I knew not what. The waitress showed up with beers for all of us as the band started its first number and several couples moved out to the dance floor. Saved for a few minutes from trying to follow the conversation, I stared at Angie, unseen by Joe but Angie suddenly smiled at me and lifted her beer in a silent toast.
I had this... feeling come over me. It was like having been out in bitter cold and coming in to stand close to the red-hot stove. My hands and feet started tingling and I felt a sudden warmth flow over me. Something hard, black and bitter broke loose in my heart; the killing was over—God forgive me!—and I didn't think I would have those damning dreams again.
My face felt like a plastic mask melting in the heat and I felt the strangeness of a real smile forming, my lips curling up at the edges. Later, after Joe left, she told me that it seemed like she could see the glacial blue of my eyes change to the rich forever blue of a hot Texas summer day.