Some darlings are hard to kill


By definition, darlings–those parts of our manuscripts that we love even when they serve no purpose–are painful to kill, but some are more painful than others. This painfully dead darling is set it in Vietnam, but the incident it is based on took place during World War Two.


          “I heard about this kid, a gentle kid, really. He was tall, broad in the shoulders, good-looking, with reddish-gold hair. But what really made him stand out was his smile. He always smiled.

          “This kid was so thrilled to be doing something for his country that nothing bothered him, not even the climate. Since he was a swamp rat from Louisiana, he felt right at home.

          “He came from a very large, very poor family who never had enough food; when he was drafted into the army, he felt as if he had won the lottery. He always had plenty to eat and, compared to the meals he had grown up with, it seemed like haute cuisine. He even loved the c-rations, including the ones that everyone else threw away, like ham and lima beans.

          “He was delighted with his government issue clothes, too. In his entire life, he had never worn anything new or had boots that fit. He felt like a king. No matter what happened, it was better than his life back in the swamps of Louisiana, and he could not help smiling.

          “His platoon was stationed near a Vietnamese village. Those people hated the Americans, but for some reason they took a liking to this smiling kid. They called him Wa-ky number one. Wa-ky was what they called the Americans, and number one meant the best. They also called him dinky-dao, which means retarded or mentally ill, because he was always smiling. They thought it was the funniest thing that the best American was dinky-dao.

          “The one person who hated the kid was his sergeant, a really nasty piece of work, who felt he was being mocked by that constant smile.

          “One day, in a fit of anger, the sergeant took an empty sandbag, and made a crude mask by cutting holes for the eyes and nose. He yanked it over the kid’s head, and snarled, ‘I never want to see your fucking smile again.’

          “When the kid removed the hood, he was still smiling—he thought it had been a joke. This really infuriated the sergeant. He slammed the butt of his rifle into the kid’s face, grabbed the hood, and jammed it back on the kid’s head, screaming, ‘I’ll kill you, you motherfucker, if you ever take this fucking bag off again.’

          “After a few days of wearing the hood, a change came over the kid. He would wade into the center of a battle and just let loose as if he thought he were invincible, or as if he no longer cared whether he lived or died. Afterwards, he would bayonet the dead bodies and mash their faces with the butt of his M-l6.

          “All of this made the sergeant very nervous. He ordered the kid to take off the hood. The kid refused.

          “As time went on, the man in the hood—you notice I say man, Sarge? That’s because there was nothing left of the kid he once was—got more and more out of control. He would go off by himself to hunt VC, and would return wearing a necklace of still-warm ears. Everyone was scared of the man in hood, particularly the sergeant, who was certain he would be fragged, but the man just ignored them and went about his job of methodically eliminating the VC.

          “Finally the time came for the man in the hood to be rotated out. That morning he arose, casually took off the hood, folded it neatly, then packed it with the rest of his gear.

          “Everyone gasped in shock when they saw him—his face was hideously deformed. When the sergeant had butt-stroked the kid, he had destroyed the kid’s left cheek and orbital bone, and they had never been repaired; no one even knew that he had been badly injured.

          “He still had a smile on his face, however, but this time it was the rictus of pain, or of death.

          “And his eyes . . . You’ve heard of the thousand yard stare, Sarge? This was a ten thousand-yard stare, as if the man in the hood had looked too long into hell, and now hell was all he knew.”

Unkilling another darling

Originally, in More Deaths Than One, I had a war correspondent tell  Bob some of his experiences. Since the speech did not add to the story, I killed it, but I am unkilling it here. 


          “I came here to Vietnam so early in the war that no American flags were being flown anywhere in the country; they were still keeping up the pretense that the United States was merely an advisor to the ARVN, in what was primarily a civil war.

          “I was sending out competent, if uninspired articles, when I stumbled upon the story of a lifetime—the CSG was involved in the drug trade! The Combined Studies Group, as I’m sure you know, Bob, is the front under which the CIA is operating.

          “I carefully researched the story, and discovered that the drug dealing had started out innocently enough, but that over the years the Agency’s role had increased dramatically.

          “It all began when the Agency started to enlist the indigenous hill peoples, the Montagnards, in the fight against the North Vietnamese.

          “The Montagnards hated all Vietnamese, who treated them as if they were less than human, but they had a special hatred for the Viet Cong, who demanded that they pay taxes, forced their young men to join their army, and stole their cash crop—opium.

          “They were eager for the opportunity to kill the VC, but first they had to work their poppy fields and sell the crop. When the Agency agreed to buy their opium, saving them the trouble of smuggling it out of the country, the Montagnards agreed to join the South Vietnamese Army.

          “The Agency sold the raw opium to the Union Corse—a world-wide crime syndicate from the island of Corsica, not far from Sicily. The Union Corse had massive refineries in Marseilles for turning the raw opium into heroin, and a vast network, probably the greatest in the world, for distributing the final product.

         “Much of the Agency’s heroin found its way onto college campuses in the United States. Don’t you find it ironic, Bob, that those anti-war activists who think taking heroin is so hip and anti-establishment are, in actuality, funding the CIA’s clandestine operations around the world?”


Kill your darlings

Our darlings are all those bits that we hate to part with. We think they add to the story, but in reality all they do is slow it down. In my novel, More Deaths Than One, I had my hero Bob going to a Vietnam Vet support group and listening in, but I had to kill the discussion because it served no purpose. So here, for you, I am unkilling it:


          Marvin’s voice rose in anger. “My kid came home from school the other day and told me we lost in Vietnam because the American military did not know jungle warfare.”

          “Horseshit,” Frank said. “We didn’t lose. We left.”

          “After winning every major battle,” Dolph added. “But, like Korea, it was not a war. We were only supposed to be there, a presence, until the people who make those kinds of decisions got what they wanted.”

          Gaston leaned forward. “Even if you Yanks didn’t know jungle warfare, we Australians did. We’re tough and well trained, and are some of the best jungle fighters in the world. Everyone seems to have forgotten we were in Vietnam, too. So were thirty thousand Canadians, though I’m not sure how much they knew about jungle warfare.”

          “But the South Koreans did,” Dolph said. “Man, those guys were really good at hand-to-hand combat. I’m glad they were on our side. So were the Chinese mercenaries, the Nungs, and they definitely knew jungle warfare. There were also some French soldiers who remained after France pulled out of the country.”

          “That’s beside the point. We Americans”—Frank pounded the air using his fist as a hammer—“know jungle warfare. What the hell do they think we were doing in World War Two? Much of that action took place in jungles—Burma, the Philippines, the South Pacific, to name a few. And the OSS was already in Vietnam back then, helping the Viet Minh fight the Japanese. While the OSS was teaching the Viet Minh modern warfare, the Viet Minh were teaching the OSS their way of fighting. So anyone who says we lost because we didn’t know jungle warfare is full of shit.”

          Marvin made balloons of his cheeks, then blew out the air. “I tried telling my kid that, but he wouldn’t believe me. I hate to think what other crap they’re teaching him.”