This month’s poem is from Inverted Flight: A Collection of Verse, by Don Mercer (Call sign “Rustic 41”), published in 2004. Mercer flew the Cessna O-2A, a twin-engine (one engine in front, one engine in back) low altitude spotter aircraft, near Bien Hoa, South Vietnam, in 1970-1971. This poem relates an unusual experience he had while flying over the Cambodian border west of Saigon.
This 18-stanza poem is much longer than any I have previously posted. Even though it is not precisely crafted, I like it for the true-to-life picture it gives of one specific instance of flying activities that occurred in South Vietnam during the unfortunate Vietnam conflict.
A ballad, it represents the true ballad impulse, the effort to capture in verse a real-life event whose significance the writer conveys to the reader.
True ballads are not normally short poems, because they tell meaningful stories about the actions of the central character, and require time (and several stanzas) to fully establish the context for the reader to appreciate the significance of the actions described.
A Loach was a small, agile Army helicopter used in Vietnam in the later years of the conflict.
One bright sunny day, as I worked across the fence,
Working with an Army pink team, o’er the jungle, oh so dense,
A command and control chopper—“C&C”—flying up above,
A Cobra gunship at the ready—for the enemy, had no love.
And down below at treetop height was a chopper with a bubble;
A young Army warrant officer, hanging it out, looking for trouble.
The “pink team” was a combination of the choppers working like glue,
Zigging and zagging every which way, using tactics that proved so true.
The warrant officer in the OH-6, or Loach, as it was called,
Would hover over jungle canopy, seeking the enemy to scald.
He’d part the tops of trees, with blasts of downward air
From the Loach’s blades above, while showing little care.
For himself he was to all, little more than bait
As the rest of us stood at the ready, not much to do but wait.
The Loach would dart here and there, seeking bunkers to attack;
Which, when he found, the Cobra’d roll in, firing rockets off his rack.
And if the enemy showed himself, then I was there to call
Fighter bombers to launch air strikes, leaving thick black smoke—a pall.
But as the Loach moved in and out of the jungle treetops there
I sensed he had then on his mind something else for which he cared.
And sure enough, when the chopper crossed a tree line just below,
He saw a hooch, a nice wide yard, and settled down just so;
The C&C ship called to see just what the young man then had found;
But no answer for us up above, as he prepared to exit on the ground.
I dropped in lower to the west, the Cobra gunship to the east;
It took not long to figure out, now on his mind he had a feast.
For out of the Loach he darted, with the engine on but low;
The chopper blades turning slowly now, just waiting but to go.
The young man, like so many, most likely less than twenty years;
Ran across the yard and true to form, certainly showed no fear.
That’s when I saw what he was after, his target of the day;
A scrawny thing they called a chicken, as it headed for the hay.
It ran and ran, yet faster, the young man closing on his tail behind;
As we above could only laugh, thinking he must have lost his mind.
The chicken ran into a corner, his end not too far now;
The young man then ran around what appeared to be a cow.
A water buffalo, it turned out, was just grazing all the while;
As those of us flying overhead, all we could do was smile.
The young warrior approached the chicken, his enemy soon to pay;
He had it cornered now, moved in, while keeping the water buffalo at bay.
I saw him reach for the chicken, wings moving as it attempted to fly;
The young man lunged and grabbed its legs, holding the quarry up so high.
He’d had his fun, chasing o’er the farm his paltry little lunch;
It demonstrated once again, how wild those warrant officers were,
A courageous, fearless bunch!
In all my days of flying there, I saw nothing quite the like;
Of a young man landing behind the enemy’s lines, as if but on a hike.
From a hundred feet above I saw he had his lunch, just like food fast,
But I couldn’t help but wonder if it might not be his last.
As he made his way back to the Loach, the Cobra rolled in hot;
‘Cause just a few hundred meters away, he saw movement:
Fortunately not a lot.
And as I pulled off to the west, the Loach pulled up rather a bit abrupt;
The Cobra fired into that green stage, as if only to disrupt.
The young man’s chase for lunch that day nicely ended with success;
Having flown a few missions beside these men, I’d come to expect no less.
The Loach pulled up and flew by me, the young fellow with his prize,
Strung from the canopy top, fluttering wildly; I could only laugh so at its size.
For the chicken was but a mouthful, looked like feathers more than meat;
But I could see the glee, and heard the radio blaring of his feat;
While some may think this story foolish, there’s a lesson to throw out;
When we seek men who are fearless, you need only look for those scouts.
For those who piloted the Loaches were to all a breed apart;
Seeking bunker complexes, enemy caches, they were always quick to dart.
Just like a little hummingbird, from tree to tree they flew,
They hunted the enemy and did their job with bravery and spirit too.
Those men so young of yesteryear—they were an emboldened lot;
They knew no fright, would hover, appearing invincible to gunshot.
They were a different class of men, Americans all, but more:
Incapable of being rattled while hugging that jungle floor.
It’s hard to look back now, and give it just perspective;
For many did their jobs too well, and for that, their lives did give.
So we can live a life of ease, enjoy liberty and freedom dear;
Paid for by these young men back then, who showed never any fear.