There’s a gap­ing hole in his chest that sucks every inch of air around us. I tear my T-shirt from my body, ball it up and stuff it — force it — jam it into the gap­ing hole un­til the suck­ing sound sub­sides.

Stamford Advocate (Sunday) - - Opinion - DOONESBURY By Garry Trudeau think I’m gonna be sad — I think it’s to­day — Yeah! The girl that’s driv­ing me mad — is go­ing away. She’s got a ticket to ride; she’s got a ticket to ri-hi­hide She’s got a ticket to ride; but she don’t care. My baby don’t care

Gale force winds jam my jaws, fill my lungs — I’m chok­ing. The hair on my head, it’s just the right length. The tips whipped by the wind like a mil­lion laser beams, stab­bing at my eyes. Need to get my face out of the hatch, away from the wind, turn in­board. It’s a dif­fer­ent world with no wind. But the noise ...

The heavy dull thump of the ro­tor as its blades slap the sky. Hand sig­nals are the lan­guage in this world above the tree­tops. Clouds rush by and my thoughts are of the last few days es­cort­ing a Catholic Navy chap­lain to the South Korean Marines base camp. Twenty min­utes more in the air and I’ll be back in the rear with the gear, hot meal and shower waitin’ for me.

There’s just two of us be­sides the crew on the chop­per we’re in, a UH-34 so old I been told it flew in the Korean War. A busi­ness-sized card we were handed when boarded this bird reads, “Thank you for fly­ing the friendly skies of South­east Asia with Jolly Roger’s Dodgers — Ma­rine Air Group — 36. Please fas­ten your seat belt (there aren’t any) and please sit on your Flak Jacket for the belly of this bird is not ar­mor-plated.”

One mo­ment the door gun­ner is re­laxed — one arm slung over the stock of his M-60 ma­chine gun — bar­rel pointed sky­ward. In one sud­den sweep­ing mo­tion he stands, ad­justs his in­ter­com — bolt goes home on the ’60 — he’s locked and loaded. The chop­per bucks and jerks, al­most skid­ding to a stop, a sud­den de­scent, a spi­ral stair­case to­ward the ground.

Door gun­ner beck­ons — my ear to his mouth. Down­ward out the hatch, points his fin­ger. He screams. I can hardly hear. Emer­gency Med-Evacs, that’s what’s here.

A quick look out the hatch gives me the chills. NVA sol­diers cover the hills. Pith hel­mets bob as they swarm like lo­custs. Scat­tered here and there are Ma­rine grunts in the val­ley des­per­ately weath­er­ing the blows.

A smoke grenade pops. Plumes of yel­low smoke mark the spot for us to go to a small clear­ing aside a rice paddy dike

The chop­per rears its nose up in the air a few feet off the ground, a stal­lion on its hind legs thrust back­ward. I strug­gle to keep my bal­ance. The door gun­ner laces with lead the pith-hel­meted hill­side. I wipe the dirt from my eyes cre­ated by the force of the bird’s blades that tried un­suc­cess­fully to smother my soul.

I know the rou­tine. The seats get folded to make room on the deck for the dead and dy­ing. Rac­ing to­ward us are Marines car­ry­ing — drag­ging — oth­ers who can’t make their own way. One man is sit­ting on the arms of two oth­ers as a steady stream of blood squirts from his leg. His head gen­tly tilts back and his helmet falls to the dirt, ex­pos­ing a tan line on his fore­head that’s marked with grime. His eyes have never been this wide open, star­ing straight into the sun.

They reach us at last, pass­ing the wounded and dead up. Those who are still able to stand pro­vide cover fire. The chop­per, screams of the wounded, AK-47s, M-16s, the shout­ing of the men — and now — mor­tars. The noise is deaf­en­ing.

We stack the dead in the rear, keep­ing the wounded close to the hatch and grab the armpits of one man to pull him in. There’s a gap­ing hole in his chest that sucks every inch of air around us. I tear my T-shirt from my body, ball it up and stuff it — force it — jam it into the gap­ing hole un­til the suck­ing sound sub­sides.

A sergeant is yelling. One man is miss­ing. He was last seen be­hind the paddy dike 50 yards away.

“I’ll go!” I scream.

The pi­lot sticks his head and arm out of the cock­pit. Looks at me, points sky­ward and flashes five fin­gers twice. I have 10 min­utes.

Thumbs-up from the door gun­ner as he lays a layer of lead above my head. I be­gin my dash. I’m the fastest man in the world.

My head is pound­ing as I slam into the dike just ahead of a hail of gun­fire. A deadly con­test has be­gun with the NVA on one side try­ing to put me away and the Marines cov­er­ing my every move. I scram­ble over the dike, slide waist deep into rice paddy wa­ter. Wa­ter buf­falo turds float ev­ery­where but no wounded Ma­rine,

Fo­cus ... tune out. All the deaf­en­ing sound is gone. I can hear the rip­ple of the wa­ter as my eyes search for the Ma­rine. Then I hear it, clear as a bell. Some­one singing

He’s em­bed­ded into the dike. Can’t tell where he’s hit. He’s in shock. Blood and mud latch on to his collar. I tow him through the turd-in­fested wa­ter. He’s talking to me. “She don’t got a ticket to ride — I do — I got a ticket to ride and I don’t care”

“Sure, pal,” I tell him. “You got a ticket to ride and we’re gonna ride right out of here right now.

I drag him over the dike. Grab an arm, then a leg. Fire­man’s Carry. I carry the load. I feel his life’s blood flowing through my fin­gers. I can hear ev­ery­thing again, only it’s louder now. He’s wet. I’m wet. We’re both cov­ered in blood and mud as I back­track my dash. The chop­per in my line of sight.

Draped over my shoul­ders he con­tin­ues to sing over and over “I got a ticket to ride and I don’t care.”

Bul­lets bite the earth and kick up dirt all around us. In a fi­nal burst of en­ergy I make it to the hatch of the chop­per and throw my pack­age aboard. I jump in, the pi­lot pulls us away in a bank so steep that I strad­dle the hatch and kick to keep bodies from fall­ing out. The door gun­ner is still spit­ting lead, the bar­rel of his ’60 pro­trud­ing out from un­der my armpit.

The pith-hel­meted fig­ures are still try­ing to shoot us. We get our load of hu­man flesh back to the rear. Pink­ish­brown dirt sticks to bright red blood caked and sun-baked on my arms.

I won­der: Am I more a man to­day than I was yes­ter­day? I’m tired. It’s over. It’s time for me to cry. But he’s still singing.

Michael Cummo / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

James A. Spar­row at the Me­mo­rial Day Pa­rade in Stam­ford in 2016, when he served as grand mar­shal.

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