Volume 32, Number 4


Richard Harkness

I slipped a 7.62 cartridge into the chamber of my M40 rifle and bolted it, having made adjustments to compensate for gravity, windage, elevation and the humidity in Nam that afternoon. The chopper had dropped my spotter and me two miles back. Wearing jungle camouflage, we hound-dogged our quarry through the thick undergrowth to our present high position and set up for the kill.


I was 7, my brother 15. For Christmas, we got camping equipment. He also got a .22 rifle, and I got a BB gun. I eagerly filled my new canteen with water and took a sip. The strong metallic taste caused me to make a face. My brother called me a dumbhead and said to wash out the canteen first.

He set up a bull's-eye target in the backyard, so I could practice shooting my BB gun and made a fuss over how quickly I became a good shot.

Sometimes I got out my jigsaw puzzles, and we sat on the floor and raced to see who could put together a puzzle the fastest. I won more often than I should have.

I followed my brother around whenever he let me. He worked me into the football games he played with his buddies. In one game, the guys on the other team left me unguarded when I went deep, and I ran into the end zone. My brother threw a long, high pass that I caught for a touchdown. He made a big fuss over it. I couldn't celebrate because the ball had knocked my breath out and made my chest sting. I kept quiet about it, so they wouldn't have an excuse to leave me out next time.

One summer night I went with my brother and three of his buddies. We hiked out to a field where a farmer grew watermelons. They thought it would be fun to swipe a couple of melons, but I had a bad feeling about it.

They waited till a cloud had covered the moon. My main concern was watching out for snakes. Suddenly the back porch light flicked on at the farmer's house. I saw the forms of a man and a boy come out the screen door.

The man shouted, "Stay out of my damn watermelon patch!"

"Run!" one of the guys yelled.

The moon had reappeared, making things look ghost-like. I ran as fast as I could, my brother slowing down to let me get in front. I heard the crack of a .22 rifle and looked back and saw my brother fall, as if he'd tripped. I shouted, "Don't shoot!" and ran back to where he lay on the ground. He wasn't moving. My first thought was that he was playing dead, so they wouldn’t shoot again. Then I spotted the patch of red in the hair on the back of his head. Suddenly I couldn't catch my breath, as if a football had hit me in the gut.

The farmer and the boy came up. Their moon-cast shadows fell across my brother's fallen form. The farmer held the rifle. He was shaking his head, breathing in heaves.

"I didn't mean to hit him! I just meant to scare you kids away!"

The boy, about my age, was trembling, and his eyes were large.

I hated their shadows for touching my brother.

The farmer called the police. Under questioning, it turned out that the farmer had lied to protect his son. His son had been the one who fired the shot that killed my brother.

Thing is, we weren't even going to take any melons. My brother had said they needed more time to ripen.

The tape of my life always pauses here on rewind.


My dad left us when I was in the seventh grade. To make ends meet, my mom and I moved in with my grandmother back in the small town where I was born and where my brother had been buried. After we settled in, I ambled over to the cemetery, having not been there since the burial service. Among the rows of gravestones, I found the one bearing his name. I pulled back the wild grass from the flat stone and scraped embedded earth from the etched characters MARCH 12, 1938–JULY 20, 1953. When a gentle wind whispered through the grass, I wanted to believe he knew I was there. I sat beside him for a long while, eyes closed, wishing hard that I would hear his voice calling me a dumbhead, then opening my eyes to see him standing there.

I became friends with the boy next door. He was a grade ahead of me in school. He knew I had lost my brother, and I found out he had lost his brother in Vietnam.

A stream—we called it the branch—ran between our houses. During the summer, we maneuvered down the bank into the water, watching out for snakes, and set loose the rubber band-propelled toy paddleboats we had carved from wood. We walked barefoot on the hot asphalt streets to the city swimming pool and cooled off with a dip. The red Coca-Cola vending machine under the awning would drop a cold bottle of Coke for a nickel. On the way home we picked ripe plums in the field across from the pool, stepping gingerly to avoid stickers.

Sometimes we set up targets to see who was the better shot, and I usually won. I used my brother's old .22 rifle, and he used the .222 rifle his brother had given him before leaving for military service. We never talked about our big brothers, but I think we both felt kind of like jigsaw puzzles that were missing a piece in the center.

One afternoon we sat straddling the concrete wall of the bridge above the branch. I pointed toward a water moccasin I spotted about 20 yards upstream. It was nestled in the water near the bank, dark as a shadow, its tongue flicking. He said it would be a hard shot at that distance, even for me.

I fetched my rifle, slipped a .22 caliber long rifle cartridge into the chamber and bolted it. I braced the rifle and lined up the snake's head in the sight, then gently squeezed the trigger. Its black, curled form flopped over in the water, white belly up.

"Good shot!" he said. "That's a kill shot."

The stilled, fleshy form floated slowly downstream toward us and disappeared under the bridge, its wake bearing a surge of regret. Killing the snake seemed pointless. I wondered where the urge came from to shoot it. Maybe it would have been different if the snake had posed a threat.


I took a swig from my canteen. The heat was oppressive. The sparse bamboo canopy in this sector invited the sun to beat down on us like we were skewering on a spit. I wiped sweat from my eyes with the towel I used to cushion my rucksack straps.

The military draft had jerked me out of my third year in college. Army brass duly noted my marksmanship skills and routed me to sniper training.

The chopper view from a height had been deceptively scenic: a vista of thatched huts, jade-green rice paddies, and groves of bamboo and palm trees. On the ground, any ardor of adventure had yielded to a deadly game of cat-and-mouse in an alien jungle terrain that was home to the enemy. We had to stay alert for booby traps and venomous spiders and snakes.

This was my first field assignment, and I was paired with an experienced spotter. He followed the target 800 yards away through his tripod-mounted telescope. At that distance, the shot would not be heard.

"They're still setting up camp," he said. "Let's wait a bit."

We made small talk. When he mentioned missing the taste of boudin sausage, I realized we were both South Louisiana boys. We'd heard news that political leaders were meeting in Paris to negotiate an end to the war, but were stalled in squabbles over whether the negotiating table should be round, oblong, or square.

I asked him how he became a spotter.

He was thoughtful for a moment. "The brass thought the job might desensitize me, help me overcome my problem."

Whenever he handled a rifle, he said, his hands would start shaking uncontrollably. He couldn't fathom why. At first they suspected he was faking it. Sent him to the base shrink. Under hypnosis, it came out that he'd had a traumatic experience with a firearm when he was a kid. He had repressed the memory, kept it bottled up all this time. The shaking hands were a symptom of that.

"The shrink said that one day I might start remembering."

His eye was back at the scope, his hand signaling to get ready. "Looks like the target's going over a map with underlings."

I felt in a pocket for the faded photo of my big brother, forever stuck in the past, destined to always be younger than me. Touching it gave me comfort. Memories circled back like homing pigeons, stored-up treasured times buried in a box that could not be re-opened. All I wanted was for us to complete the mission and make it back to the pickup site in one piece.

I remembered the words of my trainer: It's natural to tighten up on your first kill. Just concentrate on the job. Take out the enemy before he takes us out.

"Okay, he's stationary now," my partner said.

I lined up the enemy commander's head in the crosshairs of my rifle's 24-power scope. The tripod base steadied my aim. A Vietnamese maxim I'd heard popped to mind: The crab lies still on the chopping block, never knowing when the blade will fall.

Suddenly the familiar finality of death fell over me like a shroud. I was hesitant. Then the target moved his head to one side, and I noticed a synchronous movement on the map spread out before him. I realized it was his shadow, which fell across the map, that I saw move. At that moment, it was if something apart, but part of me, gently squeezed the trigger.

"Kill shot!" my partner said. "Threat neutralized."

I kept my eye at the scope, viewing the flurry of activity around the fallen form. "He won't have a hand in killing any more of our brothers," I said.

"What was that you said?"

I looked at my partner and repeated it.

"No, I heard that. You said something else right before you pulled the trigger."

I shook my head.

"I could swear I heard you whisper Stay out of my damn watermelon patch."

His eyes bored into me.

"Those words," he said. "They ring a bell. I've heard them before."

I felt the blood drain from my face.

"Do you believe in fate?" I heard myself say.