The platoon of twenty-six soldiers moved slowly in the dark, single file, not talking. One by one, like sheep in a dream, they passed through the hedgerow, crossed quietly over a meadow, and came down to the rice paddy. There they stopped. Their leader knelt down, motioning with his hand, and one by one the other soldiers squatted in the shadows, vanishing in the primitive stealth of warfare. For a long time they did not move. Except for the sounds of their breathing, the twenty-six men were very quiet: some of them excited by the adventure, some of them afraid, some of them exhausted from the long night march, some of them looking forward to reaching the sea, where they would be safe. At the rear of the column, Private First Class Paul Berlin lay quietly with his forehead resting on the black plastic stock of his rifle, his eyes closed. He was pretending he was not in the war, pretending he had not watched Billy Boy Watkins die of a heart attack that afternoon. He was pretending he was a boy again, camping with his father in the midnight summer along the Des Moines River. In the dark, with his eyes pinched shut, he pretended. He pretended that when he opened his eyes, his father would be there by the campfire and they would talk softly about whatever came to mind and then roll into their sleeping bags, and that later they’d wake up and it would be morning and there would not be a war, and that Billy Boy Watkins had not died of a heart attack that afternoon. He pretended he was not a soldier.
In the morning, when they reached the sea, it would be better. The hot afternoon would be over, he would bathe in the sea, and he would forget how frightened he had been on his first day at the war. The second day would not be so bad. He would learn.
There was a sound beside him, a movement, and then a breathed “Hey!”
He opened his eyes, shivering as if emerging from a deep nightmare.
“Hey!” a shadow whispered. “We’re moving. Get up.”
“You sleepin’, or something?”
“No.” He could not make out the soldier’s face. With clumsy, concrete hands he clawed for his rifle, found it, found his helmet.
The soldier shadow grunted. “You got a lot to learn, buddy. I’d shoot you if I thought you was sleepin’. Let’s go.”
Private First Class Paul Berlin blinked.
Ahead of him, silhouetted against the sky, he saw the string of soldiers wading into the flat paddy, the black outline of their shoulders and packs and weapons. He was comfortable. He did not want to move. But he was afraid, for it was his first night at the war, so he hurried to catch up, stumbling once, scraping his knee, groping as though blind; his boots sank into the thick paddy water, and he smelled it all around him. He would tell his mother how it smelled: mud and algae and cattle manure and chlorophyll; decay, breeding mosquitoes and leeches as big as mice; the fecund warmth of the paddy waters rising up to his cut knee. But he would not tell how frightened he had been.
Once they reached the sea, things would be better. They would have their rear guarded by three thousand miles of ocean, and they would swim and dive into the breakers and hunt cray-fish and smell the salt, and they would be safe.
He followed the shadow of the man in front of him. It was a clear night. Already the Southern Cross was out. And other stars he could not yet name—soon, he thought, he would learn their names. And puffy night clouds. There was not yet a moon. Wading through the paddy, his boots made sleepy, sloshing sounds, like a lull aby, and he tried not to think. Though he was afraid, he now knew that fear came in many degrees and types and peculiar categories, and he knew that his fear now was not so bad as it had been in the hot afternoon, when poor Billy Boy Watkins got killed by a heart attack. His fear now was diffuse and unformed: ghosts in the tree line, nighttime fears of a child, a boogeyman in the closet that his father would open to show empty, saying, “See? Nothing there, champ. Now you can sleep.” In the afternoon it had been worse: The fear had been bundled and tight and he’d been on his hands and knees, crawling like an insect, an ant escaping a giant’s footsteps, and thinking nothing, brain flopping like wet cement in a mixer, not thinking at all, watching while Billy Boy Watkins died.
There were tricks he’d learned to keep from thinking. Counting: He counted his steps, concentrating on the numbers, pretending that the steps were dollar bills and that each step through the night made him richer and richer, so that soon he would become a wealthy man, and he kept counting and considered the ways he might spend the money after the war and what he would do. He would look his father in the eye and shrug and say, “It was pretty bad at first, but I learned a lot and I got used to it.” Then he would tell his father the story of Billy Boy Watkins. But he would never let on how frightened he had been. “Not so bad,” he would say instead, making his father feel proud.
Songs, another trick to stop from thinking: Where have you gone, Billy Boy, Billy Boy, oh, where have you gone, charming Billy? I have gone to seek a wife, she’s the joy of my life, but she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother, and other songs that he sang in his thoughts as he walked toward the sea. And when he reached the sea, he would dig a deep hole in the sand and he would sleep like the high clouds and he would not be afraid anymore.
The moon came out. Pale and shrunken to the size of a dime.
The helmet was heavy on his head. In the morning he would adjust the leather binding. He would clean his rifle, too. Even though he had been frightened to shoot it during the hot afternoon, he would carefully clean the breech and the muzzle and the ammunition so that next time he would be ready and not so afraid. In the morning, when they reached the sea, he would begin to make friends with some of the other soldiers. He would learn their names and laugh at their jokes. Then when the war was over, he would have war buddies, and he would write to them once in a while and exchange memories.
Once they skirted a sleeping village. The smells again—straw, cattle, mildew. The men were quiet. On the far side of the village, buried in the dark smells, a dog barked. The column stopped until the barking died away; then they marched fast away from the village, through a graveyard filled with conical-shaped burial mounds and tiny altars made of clay and stone. The graveyard had a perfumy smell. A nice place to spend the night, he thought. The mounds would make fine battlements, and the smell was nice and the place was quiet. But they went on, passing through a hedgerow and across another paddy and east toward the sea.
He walked carefully. He remembered what he’d been taught: Stay off the center of the path, for that was where the land mines and booby traps were planted, where stupid and lazy soldiers like to walk. Stay alert, he’d been taught. Better alert than inert. Ag-ile, mo-bile, hos-tile. He wished he’d paid better attention to the training. He could not remember what they’d said about how to stop being afraid; they hadn’t given any lessons in courage—not that he could remember—and they hadn’t mentioned how Billy Boy Watkins would die of a heart attack, his face turning pale and the veins popping out.
Private First Class Paul Berlin walked carefully.
Stretching ahead of him like dark beads on an invisible chain, the string of shadow soldiers whose names he did not yet know moved with the silence and slow grace of smoke. Now and again moonlight was reflected off a machine gun or a wristwatch. But mostly the soldiers were quiet and hidden and faraway-seeming in a peaceful night, strangers on a long street, and he felt quite separate from them, as if trailing behind like the caboose on a night train, pulled along by inertia, sleepwalking, an afterthought to the war.
So he walked carefully, counting his steps. When he had counted to 3,485, the column stopped.
One by one the soldiers knelt or squatted down.
The grass along the path was wet. Private First Class Paul Berlin lay back and turned his head so that he could lick at the dew with his eyes closed, another trick to forget the war. He might have slept. “I wasn’t afraid,” he was screaming or dreaming, facing his father’s stern eyes. “I wasn’t afraid,” he was saying. When he opened his eyes, a soldier was sitting beside him, quietly chewing a stick of Doublemint gum.
“You sleepin’ again?” the soldier whispered.
“No,” said Private First Class Paul Berlin. “Hell, no.”
The soldier grunted, chewing his gum. Then he twisted the cap off his canteen, took a swallow, and handed it through the dark.
“Take some,” he whispered.
“You’re the new guy?”
“Yes.” He did not want to admit it, being new to the war.
The soldier grunted and handed him a stick of gum. “Chew it quiet—OK? Don’t blow no bubbles or nothing.”
“Thanks. I won’t.” He could not make out the man’s face in the shadows.
They sat still and Private First Class Paul Berlin chewed the gum until all the sugars were gone; then the soldier said, “Bad day today, buddy.”
Private First Class Paul Berlin nodded wisely, but he did not speak.
“Don’t think it’s always so bad,” the soldier whispered. “I don’t wanna scare you. You’ll get used to it soon enough. . . . They been fighting wars a long time, and you get used to it.”
They were quiet awhile. And the night was quiet, no crickets or birds, and it was hard to imagine it was truly a war. He searched for the soldier’s face but could not find it. It did not matter much. Even if he saw the fellow’s face, he would not know the name; and even if he knew the name, it would not matter much.
“Haven’t got the time?” the soldier whispered.
“Rats. . . . Don’t matter, really. Goes faster if you don’t know the time, anyhow.”
“What’s your name, buddy?”
“Nice to meet ya,” he said, and in the dark beside the path, they shook hands. “Mine’s Toby. Everybody calls me Buffalo, though.” The soldier’s hand was strangely warm and soft. But it was a very big hand. “Sometimes they just call me Buff,” he said.
And again they were quiet. They lay in the grass and waited. The moon was very high now and very bright, and they were waiting for cloud cover. The soldier suddenly snorted.
“What is it?”
“Nothin’,” he said, but then he snorted again. “A bloody heart attack!” the soldier said. “Can’t get over it—old Billy Boy croaking from a lousy heart attack. . . . A heart attack—can you believe it?”
The idea of it made Private First Class Paul Berlin smile. He couldn’t help it.
“Ever hear of such a thing?”
“Not till now,” said Private First Class Paul Berlin, still smiling.
“Me neither,” said the soldier in the dark. “Gawd, dying of a heart attack. Didn’t know him, did you.”
“Tough as nails.”
“And what happens? A heart attack. Can you imagine it?”
“Yes,” said Private First Class Paul Berlin. He wanted to laugh. “I can imagine it.” And he imagined it clearly. He giggled—he couldn’t help it. He imagined Billy’s father opening the telegram: SORRY TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON BILLY BOY WAS YESTERDAY SCARED TO DEATH IN AC TION IN THE REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM, VALIANTLY SUCCUMBING TO A HEART ATTACK SUFFERED WHILE UNDER ENORMOUS STRESS, AND IT IS WITH GREATEST SYMPATHY THAT . . . He giggled again. He rolled onto his belly and pressed his face into his arms. His body was shaking with giggles.
The big soldier hissed at him to shut up, but he could not stop giggling and remembering the hot afternoon, and poor Billy Boy, and how they’d been drinking Coca-Cola from bright-red aluminum cans, and how they’d started on the day’s march, and how a little while later poor Billy Boy stepped on the mine, and how it made a tiny little sound—poof—and how Billy Boy stood there with his mouth wide open, looking down at where his foot had been blown off, and how finally Billy Boy sat down very casually, not saying a word, with his foot lying behind him, most of it still in the boot.
He giggled louder—he could not stop. He bit his arm, trying to stifle it, but remembering: “War’s over, Billy,” the men had said in consolation, but Billy Boy got scared and started crying and said he was about to die. “Nonsense,” the medic said, Doc Peret, but Billy Boy kept bawling, tightening up, his face going pale and transparent and his veins popping out. Scared stiff. Even when Doc Peret stuck him with morphine, Billy Boy kept crying.
“Shut up!” the big soldier hissed, but Private First Class Paul Berlin could not stop. Giggling and remembering, he covered his mouth. His eyes stung, remembering how it was when Billy Boy died of fright.
But he could not stop giggling, the same way Billy Boy could not stop bawling that afternoon.
Afterward Doc Peret had explained: “You see, Billy Boy really died of a heart attack. He was scared he was gonna die—so scared he had himself a heart attack—and that’s what really killed him. I seen it before.”
So they wrapped Billy in a plastic poncho, his eyes still wide open and scared stiff, and they carried him over the meadow to a rice paddy, and then when the Medevac helicopter arrived, they carried him through the paddy and put him aboard, and the mortar rounds were falling everywhere, and the helicopter pulled up, and Billy Boy came tumbling out, falling slowly and then faster, and the paddy water sprayed up as if Billy Boy had just executed a long and dangerous dive, as if trying to escape Graves Registration, where he would be tagged and sent home under a flag, dead of a heart attack.
“Shut up!” the soldier hissed, but Paul Berlin could not stop giggling, remembering: scared to death.
Later they waded in after him, probing for Billy Boy with their rifle butts, elegantly and del icately probing for Billy Boy in the stinking paddy, singing—some of them—Where have you gone, Billy Boy, Billy Boy, oh, where have you gone, charming Billy? Then they found him. Green and covered with algae, his eyes still wide open and scared stiff, dead of a heart attack suffered while———
“Shut up!” the soldier said loudly, shaking him.
But Private First Class Paul Berlin could not stop. The giggles were caught in his throat, drowning him in his own laughter: scared to death like Billy Boy.
Giggling, lying on his back, he saw the moon move, or the clouds moving across the moon. Wounded in action, dead of fright. A fine war story. He would tell it to his father, how Billy Boy had been scared to death, never letting on . . . He could not stop.
The soldier smothered him. He tried to fight back, but he was weak from the giggles.
The moon was under the clouds and the column was moving. The soldier helped him up. “You OK now, buddy?”
“What was so bloody funny?”
“You can get killed, laughing that way.”
“I know. I know that.”
“You got to stay calm, buddy.” The soldier handed him his rifle. “Half the battle, just staying calm. You’ll get better at it,” he said. “Come on, now.”
He turned away and Private First Class Paul Berlin hurried after him. He was still shivering. He would do better once he reached the sea, he thought, still smiling a little. A funny war story that he would tell to his father, how Billy Boy Watkins was scared to death. A good joke. But even when he smelled salt and heard the sea, he could not stop being afraid.
Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?
1. What was your reaction to Paul’s uncontrolled giggling at the story’s end?
2. On page 5 of the story the writer quotes a bit of the children’s song that gives the story its title. (If you don’t know the rest of this song, see if you can find someone who does.) What is ironic about the author’s use of this particular song in a war story?
3. There is a central irony in warfare, which has to do with the fact that soldiers kill people they do not even know. What is ironic about how Billy Boy dies? about how his body is removed?
4. What do you think Paul has discovered about war and about himself on his first day of combat? What theme, or central idea, relating to war have you become aware of by sharing Paul’s experiences?
5. In a sense, this is a story about a hero’s journey, which often takes the form of a quest—a search for something of great value. What is it that Paul expects to find at the sea, the end point of his journey? Ironically, what does he find instead?
6. In what ways is Paul an exile and an outsider? What do you imagine Paul will be like a year after this story ends?
Connecting with the Text
7. How do you feel about the way this writer has treated the subject of war?
8. Look back at the poem written by a nurse in Vietnam (see Connections). How does it affect your understanding of O’Brien’s story and of the Vietnam War?
Extending the Text
9. Think about the story’s historical context. How does Paul’s story resemble other war stories you have read or war movies you have seen? How is it different?