Published in the White Valley Gazette, 12 Jan 1983
My dinner companion for the evening has killed more men than any other American. His morbid achievement is a fact dedicated to the annals of military histories and Guinness books stuffed into the shelves of doctor and dentist offices across the country. But you would never be able to tell by the way he amicably chats up the local crowd at Brannigans. Or by the way he waves gently for the bartender to come take his order. And as the graying soldier studies the menu in front of me, in the booth of that tiny bar at the edge of fifty-ninth street, I wonder, whether there is even more to Wild Bill’s unusual story than meets the eye.
“Whiskey. Whatever you got,” he asks the pretty young waitress. “Come back in five for our food order.“
The girl smiles and turns to me. I ask for a soda without ice. She scribbles something down on her pad and disappears into the crowd by the bar. Once she’s gone, Bill shares a shit eating grin at my choice.
“Cheap date,” he smirks. “A little liquor eases the axles, boy.“
I could tell him it’s a personal choice. I could tell him that my father had a little trouble with the bottle, and it’s best for me to avoid it, we all have our vices, or whatever people say these days. But I don’t bother. Because this story is not about me. At least not yet.
Bill’s attention drifts backs towards our beautiful waitress. She is taking orders from an elderly couple sitting by the television. He asks if I noticed her standing there. I tell him that I do.
“Those legs, Christ, they don’t make them like that anymore,” he whispers whilst licking his cracking lips. “Sometimes it feels like my body is a corpse but my mind is still a horny thirteen year old,”
Bill looks me up and down before taking a healthy swig of whiskey.
“I would ask if you get it, but it’s clear that you don’t.”
I chuckle uncomfortably and rush to change the topic.
“Two-hundred confirmed kills. The Army agrees. You, Wild Bill, are the record holder.”
Bill nods and lets his cool blue eyes wander back to the girl.
“Two-hundred, huh? That few?”
A young girl quickly trots over to take our orders. My benefactor perks at the opportunity.
“Let’s do the mozzarella sticks. And the chip dip. Salsa and queso. Two of the shrimp samplers. Two hamburgers. A steak. Two steaks. Chicken tenders, chicken wings, mild, and two more whiskeys. We’ll start there.”
Bill looks towards me expectantly. I shake my head. The waitress disappears.
“Are you saying there were more?” I ask once we’re alone. “More than two-hundred, rather…”
Bill’s eyes gloss over as his shortened attention span is lost to the wind once again. The grizzled veteran took a bullet to the head years back. The shot skipped past his frontal lobe and burst out the other side. His doctor said the ordeal should have christened him a vegetable. It didn’t. Nothing stopped Bill.
“You lose track after a while,” he mutters evenly. “The first few started to blend into the last few these past couple years. This kid, that kid… in the end, it’s easier to remember the way they died.”
I nod hesitantly. Bill continues with a mouth half full of whisky.
“Most scream. Most beg for their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, grandmothers, what have you. Most of them piss their pants too. But that’s only if my first shot missed. Otherwise they don’t get the chance.”
I nod again, unsure of how to direct our conversation, at this point.
“I liked it. Most guys in the shit won’t admit it. But after the first few…. I liked killing a lot”
I look around, eager for a break, but Bill doesn’t slow down.
“There’s something liberating about it, you know, playing God? All that stood between me and the possibility of life was one piece of slanted metal.”
We stay silent for a full minute. Bill waves for a refill. The waitress quickly appears and disappears with his glass.
“It wasn’t always this way. I used to be a coward. Did you know that?”
“Of course. My mother raised a good Catholic boy. Church on Sundays. Bible study during the week. Masses were memorized in Latin and half of the boys on my block ended up in either the seminary or the army.”
“And what made you choose war?”
Bill laughs. It is a horrible croaking sound.
“Choose war? There was no ‘choice’ for me. I fucked up in school. I didn’t go to college. My family couldn’t have afforded it even if my grades weren’t such shit. The Army paid for education. The Army paid for life. The Army used to be America’s great equalizer in social status. I could be a poor boy or someone with a shot of success. Is that a choice? I suppose it is. But it was an easy one.”
I nod and finish his thought.
“A few years of hell for a lifetime of paradise.”
“My birthday was the second one called anyway. We shipped out to Fort Campbell, Kentucky in the Summer and trained with the 101st Airborne through early Fall. We were going to be paratroopers. You know, behind enemy lines kinda shit.”
I nod again.
“They had this excellent sniper at Campbell who fought in the Great War. Voodoo motherfucker. One of those guys from down in the bayou. His name was Henri, with an i, never forget that fuckin’ i. He taught me a lot about what to do with then long gun.”
The waitress deposits Bill’s refill and sprints back to the bar.
“Was his name Voodoo or was his name Henri?”
“We called him Voodoo.”
“Alright. What did you learn from Voodoo?”
Bill considers this a moment before another extended slurp.
“Airborne screaming eagles. *Unairborne puking buzzards.*”
My turn to laugh.
“And what does that mean?”
Bill’s serious expression doesn’t change.
“It means that your balls might feel the size of two bricks hundreds feet above the ground. Defying nature has that kind of effect. But once you touch down, with a quarter million of the enemy between you and home…”
The waitress arrives again with a tray nearly larger than the space allotted at our table.
“Screaming eagles turn into puking buzzards.”
The thought is one to ponder as we dig into the gracious helping before us. Bill makes no move to offer me any of the ten mozzarella sticks on his tray. He swallows them one at a time before turning to the chicken tenders. I stick with the dip.
“Was that you? A puking buzzard?”
Bill nods slightly.
“Our first mission proved Voodoo’s point quicker than any of us realized. They dropped us in Laos. I guess command thought they were being clever. Leave us one country over from Vietnam and hoof it through the woods. Enter through the back door, right? But the Vietcong were protecting Laos. And they heard our helicopters.”
He wipes a spattering of buffalo sauce from his face.
“We touched down and lost five men in five minutes.”
Bill stares through me.
“It happens a lot quicker than you might think. One moment, two folks could be talking, just like you and I are now. Then… POP. The night lights up with fireworks.”
Bill slams the table.
“The helicopter caught a tree on the way out. It exploded. Snipers took care of the rest of us. But it didn’t happen quickly.”
“The Cong didn’t want to give up their position. They hit when you didn’t expect it. One of my men took one through the eyeball. Then one through the chest. Then one took one in the arm. That one might have made it. If the second didn’t catch his neck.”
Bill’s volume has increased significantly. A number of guests look over at us nervously.
“My training kicked in like a failsafe. I found cover behind a tree in the jungle. Bobby Ashburn was screaming and bleeding beside me like a banshee. So he provided some pretty good distraction. I set my pupil through the scope. I located the Cong sniper in the distance. I saw the sweat forming underneath his eyes. I took a breath. I started to squeeze…”
I hold my breath.
“And I couldn’t fucking do it.”
Bill returns depressingly to his whiskey and burgers.
“What happened next?” I whisper breathlessly. “What happened to your unit?”
He ignores me.
“Do you have a smoke?” he asks. “I’ll need a couple smokes.”
I hand over a pack of Marlboros from my pocket. Bill pulls three from the pack and pushes it back.
“Bob Auburn bled out in under an hour. They never wasted another bullet on him. Timothy Dalton’s head shot killed him on the spot. The remaining troopers were scattered and gunned down throughout the night.”
“I hid behind the tree.”
Bill stares at me. He expects more.
“Why didn’t I help them, right?”
“Well, what did I just tell you? I believed in God, kid. I believed in the Church. In the moment before I could have blown that poor little fucker’s brains, I saw a cross around the Cong kid’s chest.”
Bill runs a finger around the rim of his glass.
“It stopped me dead in my tracks. It made me think he had a mother at home. I wondered whether his Godmother bought his cross and whether the priest at his own local church would absolve the sins we committed that night.”
Bill offers his perfected thousand yard stare to the back of the bar as the words fall out of his mouth like tobacco spit.
“I mean, it’s in the Bible, right? It’s the fifth fucking thing they say to you. ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.’ And there we were. Nothing but two Catholic boys from opposite ends of the world killing each other in a place that looked a lot like Hell.”
Whiskey three and four disappear down Wild Bill’s throat. He shouts for someone to bring five and six.
“I waited for the Vietcong to kill my men and move on. They shot the last kid before the sun came up. I think his name was Marcus.”
A brief sniffle.
“I traveled on foot to an American position they had shown us before the drop. I was lucky. The rain season had just passed and the animals kept their distance. A shell shocked but lucky little coward.”
A cough and slurp of whiskey.
“I knew what to say to command. I told them that we were ambushed. I told them I lost track of the group. I left out the insignificant detail that I heard each and every one of their individual death shrieks. That was need to know information.”
Bill leans into a juicy bite of steak. The juices run down into his already matted beard.
“I wanted to fight,” he says affirmatively. “The will to go to battle coursed through my veins the same as any other man. But the cowardice and doubt in my gut ate at me. Those men died because of me. That is an awful thing to carry around, son, I promise you.”
Another wistful stare towards the woman.
“And so I headed to my tent. I sat down. And I wrote a letter to the only man who could help me.”
“Voodoo,” I finished.
“Voodoo,” he confirms. “I told him about the battle. The real version. I told him about my faith. And all of the dilemmas that presented on it’s own. I told him about hearing my friends scream in the jungle every night since. I told him I wanted to fight. I guess I was just looking for advice.”
The whiskeys have once again been depleted. Bill doesn’t look any worse for wear as he waves for the waitress yet again.
“So what does Voodoo do? Gets his old ass on a plane and flies down to Saigon.”
I laugh, uncomfortably, still unsure where this is going.
“The Army arranges for me to go meet him. An armed escort. Folks helping him get in and out of cars. The works. Voodoo takes me down to one of the few restaurants in town. All expenses paid. Bill’s on Uncle Sam. Whatever you want, name it, he’s getting it.”
I look at the depleted trays around us.
“And the guy is just ravenous. Steak after steak. Smoke after smoke. Drink after drink. I’m trying to talk to him about my faith and my problems and the dead men still screaming in my ears. And he says nothing. He just eats. And drinks. And eats. I’ve never seen an old man go at it like that.”
Bill pauses for a moment to drain his drink and polish off the last of his shrimp.
“Finally I’ve had enough of this shit. I’m not even hungry. The stress and emotional crisis building up inside of me had removed the will to eat, to drink, to love, to WANT. I grab Voodoo by the collar of his shirt. A stupid thing to do. But I did it then. And I begged him. PLEASE. Please help me. Please do whatever you think is best. I need revenge. I need to make this right.”
I wait with baited breath.
Bill looks at me. He places his empty glass on the table and doesn’t signal for another. Bits and pieces of bone and skin lay in the bottom of vanquished food baskets. The steaks and chicken have all but disappeared.
“Nothing. For a long while. I rant and rave to this guy desperately but he doesn’t answer me. He just keeps eating.”
“Did he ever answer?”
“And what did he say?”
Bill grows quiet as he ponders his next sentence carefully.
“He said, ‘I would like to give you a gift.’”
“So I say, thank you Sir, what kind of gift, thinking it might be some trick or drug to rid me of the willies. I’ll do anything, sir, anything, I tell him.”
My anticipation builds.
“He tells me this is not the type of gift you can give back. Once it is given it is with you for the rest of your life. You cannot hide from it. You cannot fight it. You can only obey.”
“And I told him to do it.”
“So what happened?”
“Voodoo grabs me. Like this.”
Bill reaches out and clamps a massive pair of thumbs press down on the center of my forehead. A few people look over nervously. I wave them off. For a moment we sit there awkwardly with my head embraces by Bill’s hands. Guests from other tables are watching us now. Bill mumbles a couple words in a language I don’t recognize. Then he releases.
“And then was it.”
He signals for the check.
“That was what?”
He smiles for the first time all night.
“Voodoo paid for the meal. He asked me if I would like anything else to eat. I didn’t want to seem selfish at the moment. But I did feel hungry. Even though we had just eaten, I felt a hunger inside my belly that no food or fuel would fix for fifty fucking years.”
Bill took one more wistful look at the girl by the bar.
“I said no. So he smiled and said goodbye.”
“The man fell face first into a half eaten tray of mashed potatoes. Dead. Natural causes.”
“Christ. Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
We stay quiet for a moment. I wave for the waitress to bring me something stronger. Bill continues.
“The rest is history. Two hundred. Three hundred. It doesn’t matter. They all start to look the same after a while. They all start to scream the same, too. None of it mattered to me. I only wanted more. More bodies. More blood. More, more, more.”
“And now?” I ask, fearing the answer. “Do you still feel it?”
“And now there’s no war,” he considers this statement. “But a boy still needs to eat.”
I don’t know how to quite write this part right. In all my years of reporting… this final moment shall be the one that haunts me forever. Wild Bill Zoolinski pulled out a handgun from under the booth. He apologized to me before sticking it in his mouth casually. People around the restaurant started to scream. It all happened so fast that it felt like a joke. I actually laughed. And as the trigger squeezed, and bits of Bill’s brains splattered across the table, with chicken bone, steak, sauce, and blood skewered in between, I couldn’t help but think, it’s the strangest thing…
Lord, am I hungry.