Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Chapter Ten

Chapter Ten: “The Final Dance With Death”

“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know; the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”
Albert Schweitzer

After my astonishing run-in with the inebriated Army doctor, I felt the need for a cold Banks Beer. At this point in my military career, I had been a medic for 10 years and never before encountered a physician who was noticeably drunk on duty. To the credit of doctors in the Army, I never saw one in my second decade of service either.

It had been a stressful nine days. Fortunately, the State Department arranged for the entire task force to enjoy some of Guyana’s finest brew on this the final day of the mission. It was preparing to throw the mother of all after-mission parties.

One hundred and forty four cases of Banks Beer were stacked on one wall of the tired old Timheri Airport terminal. Blocks of ice had been chopped and placed on top of and among the cases of brew. In addition to the beer were bottles of Gold Label Rum, the pride of Guyana’s distilling industry. This may be the smoothest rum in the world. True connoisseurs of fine rum would never dream of ruining a drink of DM Gold Label by contaminating in with ice or Coca Cola.

Perhaps it was no wonder the clearing platoon doctor was drunk. Guyana was an alcoholic’s paradise. What with a bottle of beer costing 20 American cents after bottle deposit and rum being so mellow its almost a substitute for sex, the liver of any overly imbibing visitor to Guyana must be in constant overload and in danger of shutting down.

And here were 3,456 bottles of the best beer in the country and more than 200 fifths of rum waiting to be shared by a couple of hundred tired and stressed-out soldiers who didn’t need an excuse to party. If everyone were to equally partake in their fair share of the bounty, each member of the task force would have drunk 17 bottles of beer and a bottle of rum over the next eight to ten hours. Thankfully, the embassy remembered to provide mixed nuts and canned Fritos Corn Chips. Heaven forbid we should do all that drinking on an empty stomach.

I was standing in the middle of the fairly empty, abandoned old terminal building, drinking a cold Banks Beer and missing the guys I had left behind in Matthews Ridge a few hours earlier. Major Burgos and Captain Skinner had left to go to a meeting. I was a stranger here, having left Timheri on November 20 before most of the troops working there had arrived in-country.

As I tried hard not to feel lonely, a jeep entered a wide doorway at the far end of the huge open building. It quickly arrived where I was standing and its driver and lone occupant, a black American Quartermaster Corps officer, with the last name of “Major” stenciled on his uniform, asked me to get him a beer.

I ambled over to a wooden case, removed a piece of ice embedded on a bottle of Banks, and used one of the dozens of church keys tied to the cases to pop the metal cap from the cold brown glass bottle. I walked over to the young officer and said, “My name is Brailey, Spec. 6 Brailey.”

“I can see that. Major Major,” he said, taking the beer with his left hand and offering me his right to shake.

“Haven’t seen you around Brailey,” said the friendly and unpretentious officer.

“No sir, just got here. I’ve been forward.” I replied.

“Forward? You been to Jonestown?” questioned Major Major.

“Yes sir, Jonestown a few times. Mostly Matthews Ridge,” I said.

“Well, I guess dead bodies don’t bother you then.” The major said in more of a statement than a question.

“No sir, not really. I’ve seen and smelled enough of them lately,” I said flatly.

“Good,” said Major Major enthusiastically. “Want to get your picture in the papers?”

“I guess so.”

“Hop in,” said the Quartermaster Corps officer, patting the passenger seat.

I climbed into the jeep, and before I had a chance to settle in, Major Major threw the vehicle into reverse, did a quick half turn, jammed the jeep into first gear and tooled out of the terminal toward the tarmac.

We raced toward the flight line where trucks and tired soldiers could be seen waiting for the incoming Jolly Green Giants and the last full body bags from Jonestown. When the two big metal birds landed, the first part of the task force’s mission, recovery and evacuation of the remains from Jonestown, would be completed.

The soldiers waiting on the hot tarmac that afternoon had spent the past eight days offloading bodies from H-53 helicopters. While not as gross as the job of bagging the remains from where they lay rotting in the unforgiving sun, this job still was no picnic. The body bags were not all airtight and the smells and fluids of those who died ten days earlier fouled the air and everything else in the proximity.

International photo journalists with their still and motion picture cameras mingled with the soldiers as they waited. This moment represented the last chance for them to record the climax of the military mission sent to clean up of the biggest mass murder/suicide the world has ever known. During their Jonestown coverage, most of these professional news photographers saw the worst side of humanity and mastered the art of detaching themselves from the catastrophic event they were covering.

Cliff Yoder, a lanky white country boy from rural Pennsylvania and Eric Vega, a teenaged soldier from Puerto Rico, had come to Guyana to record the admissions and treatment of any survivors of the massacre. As medical records specialists, they were simply clerks, more accustomed to manning a typewriter than a machine gun.

Unfortunately, the day we arrived in Guyana, we learned there were no survivors. The task force had no need for clerks, but there was a major need for strong backs and arms to lift body bags from the helicopters to the trucks that delivered them to the area where the GREGG soldiers were placing them in aluminum caskets.

So Yoder and Vega spent their eight days at Timheri Airport shuttling body bags. Day after day, they had nothing more to look forward to when they woke up than the backbreaking, nauseating chore of carrying Jonestown’s dead from one conveyance to another in the sweltering tropical heat.

At the beginning of the operation, the bodies in the bags were of adults, often requiring two men to lift them from the H-53s and carry them to the waiting trucks. When two men work together, it makes the performance of a painful and difficult task easier. They have someone with which to talk, commiserate and generally pass the time with.

But as the days went by, the big bags bore smaller and smaller bodies – the mothers who had killed their offspring, the teens and adolescents whose deaths followed the younger children and finally the younger children themselves. For a day-and –a-half, the body bags contained toddlers, babies and infants, human remains that were so small, that often three or more were placed in one bag to conserve the waning supply. Even those bags filled with more than one child could be carried by a single soldier.

When a dirty job is performed by one person, the time usually used to socialize and communicate with a work partner is still there and must be filled. Most of the men working on the Timheri Airport tarmac that final day of the mission filled their work time with day dreams or memories. There mission for the past week had been to rid incoming helicopters of their rotting human cargo. Many of them had reached their breaking points.

This was not a good time to be going it solo, with only very personal thoughts and recollections of the grossly disturbing scenes and tasks of recent days. Deprived of the opportunity to easily express their thoughts can only add to the depression they create.

Although they couldn’t see the contents of the dark brown-black they carried, the soldiers knew there were children inside and their minds took them back to the children who were an important part of their lives. That was a heavy psychological burden.

Eric Vega was a sensitive 18-year-old soldier from Puerto Rico. He had been in the Army less than a year when he received orders assigning him to the 601st Medical Company in the Canal Zone. He was excited about serving in a Latin American country.

A few months after arriving at the unit, Vega found himself at Timheri Airport, carrying dead bodies from a helicopter to a truck. Less than a year out of high school and this teenaged soldier was receiving a cruel and aberrant initiation into adulthood. And on this final day of the mission, Eric was carrying the final bodies to be evacuated from Jonestown, those of innocent children, brutally murdered by their mothers on the orders of a totally deranged would-be savior – the Reverend Jim Jones.

Most of the soldier carrying the bodies from the helicopters that final day held them away from their bodies, at arm’s length, to keep the smelly contents from soiling their already dirty beyond cleaning uniforms.

Unbelievably, young Vega was hugging the body bags as he removed them from the H-53s that had brought them to him from Jonestown. He looked like a big brother, holding an injured sister close as he carried her to safety.

Tears streamed down the cheeks of this emotional young man who sensed the bodies he was carrying were no older than his little nephews and nieces in Puerto Rico. Vega walked ghostlike, from helicopter to truck, the small occupants of the vinyl bags engulfed in his arms. At the truck, he almost seemed reluctant to relinquish his burden. Once unencumbered, he seemed to quicken his step as he returned to the Jolly Green Giant to grab one more young victim and almost reverently, lovingly carry it back to the waiting truck.

A French photographer noticed Eric’s unique way of carrying these special body bags across the tarmac. Eric seemed to disregard the awful odor wafting from the bags or the vile liquid contents that frequently dripped from them. The photographer could not have known the young soldier’s motivation for acting as he did. Nor could he Vega was experiencing. But he did know a great photo opportunity when he saw one.

So the observant photojournalist, armed with a Nikon camera that possessed all the bells and whistles, stalked young Vega as he turned from the truck and walked back empty handed to the helicopter waiting with its body bags of infants and toddlers. As the young Puerto Rican soldier tenderly lifted the next vinyl bag containing infant corpses into his arms and turned, his lips seemed to be moving slightly. Eric seemed to be saying a prayer, or perhaps talking to the anonymous baby inside the bag.

His eyes were nearly closed. Tears streamed without embarrassment down his ruddy cheeks, leaving clear channels on his grimy face. His step, which had quickened when he placed his last burden on the truck, had become deliberate. It was as if Eric was trying to communicate with the spirit of the child that once inhabited the small body inside the bag he carried.

Without so much as an ounce of shame for the intrusion he represented into Eric’s private moment, the photographer walked backwards in front of the emotion-filled medical records specialist. The lens of his camera was less than four feet from Eric’s face. The incessant sound of the Nikon’s motor drive marked the frames being shot of this poignant moment. He was intent on capturing the stark humanness of Eric’s private grief. The photographer wanted the world to see a day from now, a week from now and for all, in its newspapers, news magazines, history books, what he was viewing at this moment.

And as Vega moved slowly toward the truck, with the precious contents of that body bag held tightly against his chest, he didn’t acknowledge, nor do I believe notice the reporter or his expensive camera assaulting him, invading this most personal pain-filled moment. Neither did I fully comprehend the drama in which Vega had become a star and which was about to come to a surprise ending.

Major Major saw what was happening. He watched it all. He empathized with the grief Vega was displaying and despised the crass and uncaring attempt of the photographer to win a Pulitzer Prize. The unorthodox Quartermaster officer was more than angry. He was enraged. So incensed was he at the photographer’s vulgar intrusion into Vega’s private grief, that he took a very impulsive and startling step.

Major Major visibly out of control, raised up the body bag he was carrying and swung it at the unsuspecting French photographer. The bag must have contained a child of about 13-years-old or perhaps two or three younger children whose combined weight would have been about equal to a young teen. He lifted the bag high, took a half turn to the right and swung it with great force, striking the totally surprised and shocked photographer square on the side of his face.

Upon impact, disgusting body fluids were expelled from the bag. The expensive Nikon was ripped from his hands and went crashing to the hot tarmac. The photographer fell, landing on his buttocks, joining his damaged camera. Looking up at the obviously angry American officer staring intently down upon him, the photographer did not speak, but the terror in his eyes said he was confused as to why Major Major knocked him down.

The angry officer stared at the fearful photojournalist for what seemed like five minutes and then bent down next to him, put his mouth next to his ear and asked quietly, “Man, ain’t you got no fuckin’ sensitivity?”

The incident seemed to momentarily take all the confidence and jocularity out of Major Major. He picked up the body bag he had just used as a weapon, carried it to the waiting truck and leaned back to watch me place the bag I was carrying on the truck.

I turned to look at the seemingly angry officer. He regained his composure as quickly as it had originally escaped him.

“Who are you anyway?” I asked.

“I’m in charge of the graves registration team,” he responded, as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. “Want to see where we live?”

Hopping back in the major’s jeep, we drove to a small building on the far edge of the tarmac. Hundreds of aluminum caskets were stacked nearby, shining brilliantly in the sun. I had not seen so many plain metal coffins in one place since I was at the airbase in Da Nang in 1970.

As we exited the jeep, I quickly became aware of all the flies. While Jonestown had more than its share of the pesky common insect, the number at Timheri Airport on this day must have exceeded the fly population in Jonestown a million fold.

Suddenly, the entire time I spent in Guyana seemed like a sick surreal dream. The stress and unrealness of the past week was compressed within my brain and I lost all concept of time or the division of days. The memory of my experience and what I witnessed in Jonestown continues to be painful even 30 years after the event.

Knowing the flies had used the corpses of Jonestown for sustenance and too lay their eggs, made me even more queasy as I swiped at these incessant insects. Four young company grade officers from the GREGG team obviously felt as I did. They were seated in a jeep with several pieces of mosquito netting thrown over it to provide them with a temporary respite from the flies as they ate their c-ration lunches.

Not 30 feet away, seated on an open fly-infested bench, sat a bedraggled and totally unkempt specialist fourth class. He also was eating his lunch, but without benefit of mosquito netting. The young soldier’s entire body was covered in flies, which he didn’t make the slightest effort to shoo away. Hundreds buzzed around his head, landing at will on his uncovered face, hands and arms as well as parts of his body protected by clothing.

Not only that, flies covered the tin can from which he was eating, walking on the entrée with impunity, without any sign of objection from the human diner. Rather than shooing the flies away, the young soldier seemed oblivious to their presence.

Suddenly, Major Major noticed something that was further amiss with the hungry young troop. I had not picked up on it,, but as soon as the quartermaster officer asked the soldier about it, I was surprised.

“James, what’s that body doing under your bench,” the officer in charge of the GREGG team asked incredulously as he noticed a full body bag under the hapless soldier.

Without skipping a beat, James looked up at the major, took a bite of his c-rations meal and matter-of-factly stated, “Taking it home for a souvenir, sir.”

“James, pick up that bag and put it where it belongs,” barked Major Major.

The GREGG soldier with the desire to take a piece of Jonestown home with him shrugged his shoulders in resignation. He put his spoon into his nearly empty can of c’s, placed the can on the bench, stood and grasped the body bag with both hands and dragged it to where several other bags were waiting to be placed in caskets.

When he returned to his bench, James sat down, picked up his food, watched as a half dozen flies flew out of the can and then resumed his meal.

“My troops,” said Major Major, “they do a good job, but sometimes they act a little weird.”
The smell at Timheri Airport seemed much worse than the odor at Jonestown. At least in the jungle commune, it rained daily and the tropical fauna no doubt provided pleasant natural aromas to neutralize the smell of death. There were no trees or lush vegetation at the airport or soil for the body fluids to seep into, only black tarmac that cooked and dried the body fluids under the hot sun.

Yet the GREGG soldiers went about their tasks oblivious to the olfactory challenge the rest of us faced. This was just another day at the office for them. For the infantry, medical and other support troops who came from the Canal Zone, it was the most unpleasant duty one could serve.

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