Taz and Kodak
by Rick Beck
Kodak finished a roll of film at the stop for the map reading, putting a fresh roll of film in the camera. He restrained himself. He wanted to be ready. The jungle closed back in for a time and then began to open back up again.
As the trail opened up in a less challenging level area, gunfire broke into the hike. At first it was a couple of guns firing short bursts. It came from just out of sight and Kodak could see up to Sgt. Jacoby as the pace quickened. The jungle was almost non-existent on the right side of the trail, while the left side was overgrown just a few yards off the trail.
These were the things Kodak noticed before all hell broke loose.
At first it had to be Temple, because he could see the rest of the squad, save Taz. The men at the front of the squad moved swiftly, breaking formation, charging toward the gunfire, and the rest of the squad was quickly on the run. Temple had encountered the enemy.
Kodak got two quick pictures before the squad disappeared. He closed in on what sounded like a war breaking out just beyond his sight. He was unarmed and didn't want to walk into crossfire, so he advanced carefully, clicking pictures as he moved.
There was but one thing on his mind. The helmet clanged and rattled as he did his best to run and keep his camera at the ready at the same time. He cursed the bouncing head cover.
Kodak caught up with the action, steadying himself to snap off a series of pictures of the squad as they fired from the left side of the trail, as they used the jungle for cover. There were short bursts of continuous fire on both sides of the trail. It was easy to locate 1st squad but not so easy to find where the hell Charlie was. He clicked pictures of both sides of the firefight regardless.
Kodak shot more pictures, still seeing no sign of what they were shooting at. He moved closer, doing his best to find the enemy as he stood near a turn in the trail. He'd come too far to miss whatever it was they were engaging.
Clicking one picture after another, certain he'd catch something on film, he recognized his hands were shaking and so were his knees as he stopped somewhat short of the shooting, realizing just because he couldn't see Charlie didn't mean Charlie couldn't see him.
This revelation hit him at about the same time a powerful hand clamped down on his shoulder, pushing him violently onto the ground. It had only been a minute since it started, but it seemed like much longer, and Kodak was sure he'd been shot. This interruption came abruptly as he contemplated what it was like to be a combat photographer.
As he tried to stand in an effort to evaluate his condition, the big hand was back, pushing him flat on his face, and in the same instant all hell broke loose just above his head, scaring the be Jesus out of him, which was when being flat on his face seemed like the best idea.
Pressing his face into the path, he discovered a pair of legs astride him. Looking up with one eye, he found Taz and his big rifle, waging war.
The big rifle fired quick bursts, first in one direction, and then another. Taz stood expressionless, firing in the direction where the most serious gunfire came from. He twirled like a dancer, never stepping on Kodak, but firing to the right and the left before taking off the tops of trees, displaying a massive amount of firepower.
He turned, firing in another direction, and swiftly went to spraying the area directly behind where the squad had hunkered down. He became intent on the treetops, taking time to spray each one that caught his attention. In a few seconds he could shorten one by a third.
He ejected one clip and replaced it with another as he swung back toward the right where he went back to shooting at the treetops.
After several minutes of Taz controlling the firefight, the squad all stood, moving over to the right side of the trail. They fired as they advanced into the area Taz's fire had cleared of adversaries. The return fire was modest, becoming more distant as 1st squad was in hot pursuit. Taz stood fast, finally taking a glance down at Kodak.
Kodak thought about the sound the door gunner's machine gun made. It was deeper and the spent cartridges flipped onto the floor making a tinkling sound. Taz's weapon made a similar sound to the door gunner's, with the empty cartridges clanking together as they hit the ground at his feet.
The big rifle seemed like part of Taz. With knees bent, Taz kept his back stiff. He wielded the weapon as casually as did the soldiers with the M-16s, which were half the size. They also made a less substantial sound as did the AK-47s. Each had a distinctive sound that Kodak was now able to identify.
Kodak saw the big rifle as part of Taz. It was obvious by the straining biceps that it required a great deal of focus to stand in one spot and issue continuous fire in support of his squad.
This is what Taz did. This is why he could do anything he wanted. This is why his squad asked nothing else of the fighting machine. Taz was a force of nature, armed and dangerous.
The final piece had been set in place and Kodak understood it all. There were only glances, no words exchanged between them. Kodak wouldn't know what to say. Taz, as usual, had nothing to say.
Taz whirled around, careful with his feet, and fired into a clump of undergrowth fifty feet off the path to the left. There was a human cry, followed by more fire from the big rifle. It clanked and clicked a half dozen times.
Kodak watched in amazement as the spent clip was discarded and another shoved into place. This time he fired up and then into where sounds in the brush got his attention. Taz raised the big rifle to open up on the heavy undergrowth. Once finished, he stood listening, but there was no more motion or sound.
Watching from the ground and recovering some self-control, Kodak peered out from between Taz's knees to see three squad members still moving amongst the trees off on the left. Theirs was an occasional fire as any motion was addressed with bullets.
Taz followed their advance with his eyes, moving his head along with the members of 1st squad. He was at the ready as he watched, His finger stayed on the trigger, the big rifle only slightly aimed downward, as if he expected to need it momentarily. His biceps bulged with the weight but his motion was effortless. He was a machine oblivious to human frailty.
Kodak peeked up to take two pictures of the advance before Taz pushed his head back down as quickly as he was able to get a good look at what was going on. He resented it and was grateful for the experience.
"Take your pictures from there," Taz ordered in rare consideration for Kodak's professional feelings.
"Yes, sir," Kodak said, knowing it was an order he dare not disobey.
Who would argue with a guy who was a one man army? Kodak realized how scared he was lying on that trail. With his camera at the ready he took two pictures of Taz standing above him. Taz didn't notice or he didn't care. His eyes stayed focused and his expression intense.
Each short burst from the big rifle deafened Kodak. The distant firing became sporadic, followed by longer silences between bursts. It was only the more familiar sound of the M-16s now. The odd sound the AK-47s made were now recognizable in Kodak's ear.
Once the firing ceased, Taz relaxed the itchy trigger finger. His body turned back to face in the direction they'd been going. Squad members yelled back toward them and Sgt. Jacoby yelled in response. There was an eerie echo that accompanied the exchanges. Kodak's ears were still ringing from the firing just above his head.
"You can get up," Taz said. "You hear firing, you get down, understood? Don't wait for me. I'll be there."
"Yes, sir," Kodak said, beginning to understand what Taz did.
Taz shook his head half amused and half irritated by being called sir.
"You didn't have to push me down so hard. A simple 'get on your face' would have done fine."
"I know. I kind of liked it though. Paybacks are hell. You might want to pull your shirt out before they bring me back my refills. You don't want anyone seeing those shorts."
Kodak looked down at himself not realizing he'd pissed his pants. He'd been so excited by the firefight he didn't realize how scared he'd been. There was something else he realized about Taz as they were there alone on that trail.
Taz looked away as Kodak hid the evidence of his bladder malfunction with his shirttail. His hands were shaking as he smoothed the shirt out over the wet spot and only then felt the dampness. He hadn't done that since he was three years old. He didn't know how it could happen. He hadn't been that scared.
The squad members waded back through waist high grass as they came back to the trail. Washington jogged over to Taz carrying two more clips that Taz put in his fatigue jacket pockets. Washington collected the two spent clips off the ground.
"Ramos has two more if you need them," Washington advised.
"I doubt it. These guys were here to slow us down. If 3rd and 4th squad don't intercept them, they'll disappear as usual," Taz said.
"I suppose," Washington said. "Ramos has the other two if you need more. Just in case Charlie gets caught between us."
Taz had nothing more to say. Washington seemed intent on making sure Taz was taken care of. The look on his face and the way he spoke to the soldier with the big rifle demonstrated great respect.
Washington was taller even than Kodak, but somehow Taz had grown in Kodak's eyes. How a man could grow in an hour on a path in the depths of the jungles of Vietnam defied explanation. He seemed larger than both John Wayne and Rock Hudson put together, because this was real and the other two men pretended to be heroic in war.
What Kodak felt for him was nothing like he'd felt before, regarding Taz as a useless misfit. His assessment was a mistake and Taz had grown to be a big, big man in spite of his height.
"How many?" Taz asked as he completed another survey of the area.
"We counted four. Cohen and Ramos are checking the other side where you fired into the heavier undergrowth. They'll have a count soon."
"He okay?" Washington asked, looking at Kodak, who was still processing the firefight.
"Who him? Yeah, once I convinced him to quit taking pictures and get his head down, he was okay."
"You got some pictures?" Washington asked excitedly.
"Yeah, nearly a roll," Kodak checked for a count.
"Great. Any of me?"
"He'd have stood there taking pictures all day if I hadn't insisted he duck."
"Really? Cool, dude," Washington smiled at Kodak. "A regular trooper, huh?"
"Good work, Taz. You got three in the treetops," Ramos announced as he came over. "Two on that side. Lots of blood where someone moved off after you put the hurtin' on 'em. Cohen's taking a closer look. I got two clips if you need 'em."
Taz nodded toward Ramos and Washington headed back to the front of the squad where other soldiers surrounded Sgt. Jacoby. Ramos followed when Taz was satisfied he had enough ammo clips.
"You didn't say anything," Kodak said.
"What's to say? You get any prime pictures?"
"Hard to say what film will pick up," Kodak admitted.
"Not much to say then," Taz said.
"I meant about pissing myself. I say enough about you doing it."
"I know what you meant. So, you pissed yourself. You just faced baptism under fire. Any firefight you walk away from…, you got no apologies to make. I seen it before. I done it before."
"Yeah, but I made a big issue about you doing it. I was a jerk."
"It don't mean nothing, Kodak. It ain't manly. I ain't proud of it, but I ain't going to rag on no one else about it. You got a right. You get stuck with cleaning up after me."
"Yeah, and now I know why. Thanks. Thanks for looking after me. I never saw anything like it before. You're something."
"I do my job. You hang around here, you'll see a lot of stuff. You hear firing, you get your ass on the ground."
"Yes, sir," Kodak said, knowing as soon as the words got loose they were wrong.
Taz shook his head and went back to searching the jungle for anything that moved. There were two more squads out there, so he couldn't cut loose on anything until he could identify it. He stayed vigilant, moving back a few feet to disengage from Kodak.
As Cohen reported back to Sgt. Jacoby, Kodak reached for his camera to click off the rest of the roll with the firefight on it. This was his first pictures of his squad at war and he would get the roll off to the States the first thing the following morning.
He turned his back to the trail so no one could see his hands shaking as he reloaded. The squad was too busy to pay him any mind, and Taz acted less than concerned about what Kodak did.
Kodak hadn't felt afraid. It all happened too fast for fear, but he had plenty of time to shake now that he had time to think about all those bullets flying around. The scariest part was he never saw the enemy, until Taz knocked them out of the treetops.
He still wondered why Taz covered for him.
"Good work, Taz," Hale said, jogging up. "You hit two coming up behind us. We found blood leading off toward the north but no Charlie to go with it. He won't get far though."
Taz nodded as Hale smiled large and patted his back before looking toward Kodak.
"How'd you do?" Hale asked.
"He'd a got himself shot if I hadn't convinced him he ought to get on the ground," Taz growled.
"I'm okay," Kodak said.
"He's amazing, ain't he?" Hale bragged, patting one of Taz's bulging bicep. "Worth ten soldiers you ask me. A damn fighting fool he is."
"At least ten," Kodak agreed, realizing he'd solved the mystery, replacing it with the mystique of the man.
Taz moved several more paces backward to put more distance between him and Hale and Kodak. His face remained without expression, but hearing men sing his praises wasn't anything he encouraged. He was a soldier doing the best soldiering he knew how to do. All he wanted was to get the job done and get back to the world.
Sgt. Jacoby walked back to the rear, where Taz stood watch. He handed Taz a thick piece of beef jerky. He reached into the green bag that hung on his shoulder to give jerky to both Kodak and Hale.
"Nice work," Jacoby said casually. "The main force has to be between us and Sgt. Diaz's and Sgt. Skelton's squads. We'll need to stay on our toes."
"Where've I heard that before?" Taz mumbled out around the jerky.
"This was their rear guard. We'll move up toward where we are meeting the other squads, but keep your eyes open. There's more where these came from."
"How'd he do?" Sgt. Jacoby asked without looking at Kodak.
"Too busy to keep track. He knew when it was time to duck. He'll be fine."
"Good for him. Don't want to lose the squad's photographer before I get him to take some pictures for my wife."
"Ain't that kind of picture illegal to send in the mail, Sarge?" Taz said with a smirk.
Jacoby had to give it some thought before he understood what kind of pictures Taz meant. He was only mildly amused by Taz's sarcasm.
"Final count is seven. We're claiming the one in the bush. He's dead out there by now with the amount of blood Cohen said he was leaking. Good work."
"Seven," Taz repeated, nodding.
"We'll be moving up in a couple of minutes," Sgt. Jacoby said, moving back toward the front of the squad.
Hale followed behind Sgt. Jacoby.
"Doesn't it scare you?" Kodak asked after the overwhelming experience was fading a bit.
"What, a little firefight? Nah, if I'm going to die that's as good a way as any. They weren't close enough to cause much damage. Charlie likes to leave snipers behind to hold us up so the main force can get away. It's the same old story."
"How did you know where they were? I never saw them."
"They tie themselves up in the treetops. They know there's a better an even chance they'll never come out of that tree alive, but they tie a rope around their ankle and tie it to the tree anyway. I know where to look."
Kodak was captivated, but he knew better than to reach for his camera to catch Taz in a candid moment. It was more information than he'd gotten out of Taz since he'd arrived. This was what a good war novel needed.
"You sound like you respect them," Kodak said, seeking to open a line of communication beyond their usual repartee.
"They're soldiers. I'm a soldier. We're doing what soldiers do. I don't hate them. I just kill them because that's what they sent me here to do."
"Slow us down?" Kodak quizzed to hear Taz keep talking.
"We didn't come out here to jack up a couple of snipers. There's a large force somewhere close. They're trying to get away. Once they hear the helicopters flying overhead, they know we're on their tail. We're trying to catch them. It's the game we play."
"You really don't care?" Kodak analyzed.
Taz shrugged, spitting off to the side of the trail.
"Guys that care get dead a lot faster. I just do my job."
"You can get shot standing out there like that. I watched your face. You didn't flinch."
"Not much time for flinching."
"Aren't one of those snipers likely to be aiming at you."
"I figure smart dudes hear me put down fire and they duck. As quick as they show themselves, I got the advantage and the firepower. They aren't stupid. I'm only at risk on the first shot. If I'm the guy the sniper has in his sights, I'll be the last to know if that bullet has my name on it."
"No one was hit," Kodak reminded him.
"You want all my secrets? You tie yourself up a tree. You're about to give away your position to a superior force. How straight you going to be shooting?"
"I see your point. Maybe they care, huh?"
"It's their country. They ain't fightin' for the hell of it."
"No, I suppose not."
"You hear fire, you get down. I won't ask you to get down. There's no time for politeness and I'd hate to blow you away by mistake," Taz said using his surly voice to dictate his terms.
"Yes, sir," Kodak answered, getting the same slow shake of Taz's head every time he said it.
"You just keep out of my way when I'm working. I don't want to be responsible for putting any holes in that pretty shirt of yours. Take all the pictures you want from the ground, but don't stand up until I tell you it's safe."
Kodak didn't need to be reminded. He wouldn't need to be told again.
"Thanks for the heads up on what I did," Kodak said about wetting himself.
"Now you know how I feel."
"You don't do it during a firefight," Kodak said with admiration in his voice, wanting Taz to know how impressive he was under fire.
"No, but I do do it, and that's a problem. I hold my own in combat. One has nothing to do with the other. Well, maybe it gets me a pass with the squad."
"Did you change what you do because of me?" Kodak asked.
"I don't know. I do what I do, that's all. I do what needs doing. You got down and I got down to business. Don't ask silly questions. You want to make it more complicated than it is."
"Yeah, I guess I do. My business is asking questions."
Everything Kodak had seen and photographed before the firefight was a walk in the park. It had all changed in less than five minutes. The way he felt about his job changed once he was exposed to combat. His professor had left out the part about seeing men die.
Taz was a product of the war, but when he wasn't at war with the Vietnamese, he was at war with himself. He was at odds with the army. Being a fighting fool meant the army didn't look at him too closely. This contradiction intrigued Kodak.
The discrepancy might have been ignored if Kodak hadn't been responsible for Taz's down time. He might have been all business when the shooting started, but why, after the patrols, did he go so far the other way? It was like he went from hero to misfit in the blink of an eye. It was like he didn't want to be seen as heroic.
It was all or nothing at all. It was the stuff novels were written about. Kodak thought of all the contradictory characters in 'The Naked and the Dead.'
Kodak couldn't be sure about what Taz felt but he intended to find out before returning to the States. Taz would be the key to any book Kodak wrote. The story was too good to ignore.
Within the hour they'd met up with the other two rifle squads. Each had encountered sniper fire and engaged in short firefights. There was no contact with the larger force they'd been sent to intercept. Taz had seemed sure of the outcome and Kodak remembered as much.
The sergeant from each squad squatted over a map and each marked the spot with a circle where they encountered Charlie. Once each of the three maps was marked, the sergeants relaxed and stood talking.
It wasn't an unusual mission for the sergeants or their squads. Charlie was elusive. The men in the rifle squads were happy to be able to return home to fight another day.
Charlie seemed to appear and disappear at will. He was in the area and no one saw him leave. He'd live to fight another day as well but a little short handed. It could be seen as inconclusive. They were there. They were gone. The men didn't care. They were relaxed and ready for a helicopter ride.
Taz stood at one corner of the flat top hill where they waited for the helicopters. Two other men from the other squads stood watch in the corners of the LZ. The squads waited just inside the tree line and 1st squad always loaded last, leaving only Taz to stand guard alone as the final helicopter maneuvered into position slowly easing down to take 1st squad out of the jungle.
Kodak took pictures of the scene. He stood just outside the jungle to photograph Taz standing watch. These would be discovery photos, as Kodak looked for something that explained the soldier he was tied to. Vietnam was an oddity and Taz was an enigma within it.
Kodak didn't need anyone to tell him you couldn't photograph what makes a man tick but sometimes a photo reveals something the naked eye can't catch. This roll would stay in his camera, until he finished it with candid pictures of his squad in less formal circumstances. He'd ask for multiple copies to hand out to the squad.
Once it was their turn to load, 1st squad made short work of getting on board. Taz being the last to load. As he leaped into the chopper, a half a dozen hands pulled him in away from the door as they rose for a couple of seconds and then banked hard left, rolling Taz deeper into the chopper.
Happy soldiers patted his back as he pulled himself upright with the help of a utility belt attached to the floor. He took his seat by the open door, checked the big rifle and sat back satisfied, and Kodak took pictures of it all. He too was satisfied with his day. Every man in the squad knew he was made safer by Taz's courage. They may never say the words, but it was obvious in the way they treated him.
Kodak's adventure was like nothing else he'd ever done. He felt satisfied with himself and no one needed to tell him to sit on his helmet so he didn't get his balls shot off. It wasn't necessary to explain things with words. At times actions said it all and Kodak knew the helmet wasn't just to protect his head.
He'd been shot at and he survived. He'd gotten a few pictures he was sure were keepers. All in all it was a good day, but the best thing of all was having Taz hold a conversation with him.
Everyone had come back in one piece and that made Kodak as happy as the experience itself. He felt it was inevitable that on a patrol one day one of them wouldn't be returning. He wasn't about to dwell on that part of his job. Everyone did come home this time.
The inevitable would have to wait for another day. Kodak didn't think he would be the one not to return one day. It was a good day and Kodak had never been more alive than when his feet hit the dark dirt on the hill above camp.
The squad headed for the mess tent. It was no secret that eighteen and nineteen year olds ate their weight each day, especially after a nice hike. The mood turned cheerful, even jocular, and Kodak sat with Hale, Washington, and Temple, which was normal on days he didn't shower Taz. Once he had set his tray at the table, he made a quick trip to quarters for a change of clothes.
On his second trip through the chow line Kodak noticed Taz come in and get in line. Kodak went to the 1st squad table and watched as Taz filled his tray and sat at a table with three soldiers sitting at the other end. Taz had resumed his usual posture in camp.
Everyone else wore the same clothes they'd worn on patrol. Taz had showered and wore a pair of cutoff fatigue pants and a sleeveless T-shirt. His limited hair was still wet. He ate staring into his tray with his left elbow plated on the table.
It surprised Kodak to see Taz could shower himself. Showering Taz wasn't all that big a deal any longer. Kodak stood up, excused himself, and moved between the tables to stand next to Taz.
"Thanks," Kodak said.
Taz made a special effort to find Kodak's eyes. Once their eyes met, Taz gave him one distinctive nod before going back to his food.
"Can I sit down?"
"Suit yourself," Taz managed between bites.
"Why are you so… difficult to talk to?"
"I don't have much to say," Taz offered in rebuttal, digging into his tray of food.
"You could sit with the men in your squad."
"No, I like eating alone. If I sit with them I wouldn't be alone, would I?" he said, looking up for an instant.
"Do you do everything alone?" Kodak said, wanting to engage him in a normal conversation.
Taz sat silent with his fork at the ready, seemingly in deep contemplation.
"No, I patrol with my squad. I give them all I got. I eat alone," he said as he paused long enough to say it, drilling his eyes into Kodak for the time it took to speak.
"You must like doing something with other people?" Kodak thought purposefully, searching for an opening.
"Yes, I've found showering with you to be… hard… to do alone."
"How so?" Kodak foolishly asked, knowing all the time Taz didn't say anything without a reason.
Taz paused again after chewing carefully, giving him time to find something that would alarm Kodak. The pattern was predictable.
"I think it's how you keep your cock in the crack of my ass. Feeling it get hard, growing from how it rests against my skin. It makes me feel sexy… wanted you might say. If not for the size of the thing I might bend over for you, but it would require a lot more soap than the army provides. Besides, in case you haven't noticed, you're a boy."
Kodak's mouth dropped open as Taz shoveled in some more food without showing any regrets.
"It does not get hard," Kodak objected.
"You obviously aren't paying attention. It gets hard and rubs up and down the crack of my ass. I understand a man like you finding a man like me attractive," Taz said, checking to see how Kodak was handling his assessment.
"Attractive? It all starts with me fishing you out of your piss," Kodak replied sharply.
"Yes, and I keep expecting you to get off while you're exercising it back there, thinking Lord knows what," Taz said, waiting and watching for Kodak's response.
"Is there anything you won't say?" Kodak objected, failing to completely swallow the bait this time. "Hale says there isn't."
He was on a bit more even ground now that he'd had one conversation with Taz and he hoped for more.
"Yes, go ahead and corn hole me, Kodak. I wouldn't say that."
One of the baby-face soldiers sitting at the opposite end of the table missed his mouth with his fork and dropped it. Food and fork ended up on the floor, as he glanced at Taz and then Kodak with shock written all over his face. He got up to replace his fork, brushing the food off his pants.
"I'm still going to be behind you and you're still going to be half drunk. You don't seem to let it trouble you."
"Well, letting that thing get too close to my bung seems like a bad idea drunk or sober, but I know a man like you can't help himself around a man like me."
The young soldier once again lost control of his new fork, spilling food into the middle of the table as his buddies stared at him as if he'd lost his mind. He couldn't stop staring as his mouth hung open as he listened to the conversation he couldn't believe.
"I don't know why I try so hard. You don't appreciate me," Kodak said as the soldier held his empty fork, waiting before he risked loading it up again.
"I'd appreciate you more if you don't try so hard. Key word being hard," Taz suggested.
"Friendship requires sacrifice," Kodak lamented.
"I'll work on it," Taz said. "After I eat if we have time. This friendship doesn't include hand holding, does it? My hands sweat something awful. We might ought to skip right to French kissing, but I still eat alone, you know."
"You eat with me," Kodak reminded him. "So you don't always eat alone."
"No, you eat with me and I'm only halfway sober. In my mind I'm eating alone," Taz said, cutting something that had the color of ham but the texture of spam. "You change your shorts before coming to this fine dining establishment?"
Kodak smiled, remembering why he'd come over in the first place.
"Yes, in fact I left once I got my first tray of food. Everyone but you was in here and I put them out where they could dry without being seen. This heat will be wonderful for the smell."
"Drop them over by my bunk. No one will pay any attention to the piss smell near my bunk. I'll slip them into the laundry bag. It'll go out in the morning but probably be a couple of afternoons before they come back."
"Thanks," Kodak said, sensing the conversation was over and wanting to leave it at that for the time being.
He patted Taz's bare shoulder as he passed on his way back to the table where he'd started. The poor young soldier sat watching, mouth open, ears tuned to Taz and Kodak.
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