Henry Dobbins was a good man, and a superb soldier, but sophistication was not his strong suit. The ironies went beyond him. In many ways he was like America itself, big and strong, full of good intentions, a roll of fat jiggling at his belly, slow of foot but always plodding along, always there when you needed him, a believer in the virtues of simplicity and directness and hard labor. Like his country, too, Dobbins was drawn toward sentimentality.
Even now, twenty years later, I can see him wrapping his girlfriend's pantyhose around his neck before heading out on ambush.
It was his one eccentricity. The pantyhose, he said, had the properties of a good-luck charm. He liked putting his nose into the nylon and breathing in the scent of his girlfriend's body; he liked the memories this inspired; he sometimes slept with the stockings up against his face, the way an infant sleeps with a flannel blanket, secure and peaceful. More than anything, though, the stockings were a talisman for him. They kept him safe. They gave access to a spiritual world, where things were soft and intimate, a place where he might someday take his girlfriend to live. Like many of us in Vietnam, Dobbins felt the pull of superstition, and he believed firmly and absolutely in the protective power of the stockings. They were like body armor, he thought. Whenever we saddled up for a late-night ambush, putting on our helmets and flak jackets, Henry Dobbins would make a ritual out of arranging the nylons around his neck, carefully tying a knot, draping the two leg sections over his left shoulder. There were some jokes, of course, but we came to appreciate the mystery of it all. Dobbins was invulnerable. Never wounded, never a scratch. In August, he tripped a Bouncing Betty, which failed to detonate. And a week later he got caught in the open during a fierce little firefight, no cover at all, but he just slipped the pantyhose over his nose and breathed deep and let the magic do its work.
It turned us into a platoon of believers. You don't dispute facts.
But then, near the end of October, his girlfriend dumped him. It was a hard blow. Dobbins went quiet for a while, staring down at her letter, then after a time he took out the stockings and tied them around his neck as a comforter.
"No sweat," he said. "The magic doesn't go away."
One afternoon, somewhere west of the Batangan Peninsula, we came across an abandoned pagoda. Or almost abandoned, because a pair of monks lived there in a tar paper shack, tending a small garden and some broken shrines. They spoke almost no English at all. When we dug our foxholes in the yard, the monks did not seem upset or displeased, though the younger one performed a washing motion with his hands. No one could decide what it meant. The older monk led us into the pagoda. The place was dark and cool, I remember, with crumbling walls and sandbagged windows and a ceiling full of holes. "It's bad news," Kiowa said. "You don't mess with churches." But we spent the night there, turning the pagoda into a little fortress, and then for the next seven or eight days we used the place as a base of operations. It was mostly a very peaceful time. Each morning the two monks brought us buckets of water. They giggled when we stripped down to bathe; they smiled happily while we soaped up and splashed one another. On the second day the older monk carried in a cane chair for the use of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, placing it near the altar area, bowing and gesturing for him to sit down. The old monk seemed proud of the chair, and proud that such a man as Lieutenant Cross should be sitting in it. On another occasion the younger monk presented us with four ripe watermelons from his garden. He stood watching until the watermelons were eaten down to the rinds, then he smiled and made the strange washing motion with his hands.
Though they were kind to all of us, the monks took a special liking for Henry Dobbins.
"Soldier Jesus," they'd say, "good soldier Jesus."
Squatting quietly in the cool pagoda, they would help Dobbins disassemble and clean his machine gun, carefully brushing the parts with oil. The three of them seemed to have an understanding. Nothing in words, just a quietness they shared.
"You know," Dobbins said to Kiowa one morning, "after the war maybe I'll join up with these guys."
"Join how?" Kiowa said.
"Wear robes. Take the pledge."
Kiowa thought about it. "That's a new one. I didn't know you were all that religious."
"Well, I'm not," Dobbins said. Beside him, the two monks were working on the M-60. He watched them take turns running oiled swabs through the barrel. "I mean, I'm not the churchy type. When I was a little kid, way back, I used to sit there on Sunday counting bricks in the wall. Church wasn't for me. But then in high school, I started to think how I'd like to be a minister. Free house, free car. Lots of potlucks. It looked like a pretty good life."
"You're serious?" Kiowa said.
Dobbins shrugged his shoulders. "What's serious? I was a kid. The thing is, I believed in God and all that, but it wasn't the religious part that interested me. Just being nice to people, that's all. Being decent."
"Right," Kiowa said.
"Visit sick people, stuff like that. I would've been good at it, too. Not the brainy part—not sermons and all that—but I'd be okay with the people part."
Henry Dobbins was silent for a time. He smiled at the older monk, who was now cleaning the machine gun's trigger assembly.
"But anyway," Dobbins said, "I couldn't ever be a real minister, because you have to be super sharp. Upstairs, I mean. It takes brains. You have to explain some hard stuff, like why people die, or why God invented pneumonia and all that." He shook his head. "I just didn't have the smarts for it. And there's the religious thing, too. All these years, man, I still hate church."
"Maybe you'd change," Kiowa said.
Henry Dobbins closed his eyes briefly, then laughed.
"One thing for sure, I'd look spiffy in those robes they wear—just like Friar Tuck. Maybe I'll do it. Find a monastery somewhere. Wear a robe and be nice to people."
"Sounds good," Kiowa said.
The two monks were quiet as they cleaned and oiled the machine gun. Though they spoke almost no English, they seemed to have great respect for the conversation, as if sensing that important matters were being discussed. The younger monk used a yellow cloth to wipe dirt from a belt of ammunition.
"What about you?" Dobbins said.
"Well, you carry that Bible everywhere, you never hardly swear or anything, so you must—"
"I grew up that way," Kiowa said.
"Did you ever—you know—did you think about being a minister?"
"No. Not ever."
Dobbins laughed. "An Indian preacher. Man, that's one I'd love to see. Feathers and buffalo robes."
Kiowa lay on his back, looking up at the ceiling, and for a time he didn't speak. Then he sat up and took a drink from his canteen.
"Not a minister," he said, "but I do like churches. The way it feels inside. It feels good when you just sit there, like you're in a forest and everything's really quiet, except there's still this sound you can't hear."
"You ever feel that?"
Kiowa made a noise in his throat. "This is all wrong," he said.
"Setting up here. It's wrong. I don't care what, it's still a church."
Dobbins nodded. "True."
"A church," Kiowa said. "Just wrong."
When the two monks finished cleaning the machine gun, Henry Dobbins began reassembling it, wiping off the excess oil, then he handed each of them a can of peaches and a chocolate bar. "Okay," he said, "didi mau, boys. Beat it." The monks bowed and moved out of the pagoda into the bright morning sunlight.
Henry Dobbins made the washing motion with his hands.
"You're right," he said. "All you can do is be nice. Treat them decent, you know?"