Taz and Kodak

by Rick Beck

Chapter 7


During the down time, Kodak went about taking pictures of the squad at rest. He took the most snapshots of Taz. In spite of his perplexing nature, Kodak's camera was drawn to the contradictions that were Taz. It became easier to be around him, because Taz allowed it by not objecting.

They'd taken a hike one afternoon, when Kodak wanted to go exploring. Taz found a tennis racket without any strings. He played a mock game of tennis as Kodak clicked away. Taz played to the camera, ending up with the tennis racket around his neck.

Kodak laughed at him as Taz used the handle to pull himself this way and that. Between pictures Kodak became hysterical. Taz laughed openly and acted like a regular guy.

"You're fun when you want to be, you know," Kodak said.

"This isn't a place where fun lasts for long. It's easier just to do your time."

"You sound like it's prison," Kodak said.

"If I decided to leave it would be. Better a prison than a graveyard."

"You're obsessed with death," Kodak reasoned.

"My business is death, or haven't you noticed? You can call for a jeep and leave any time you please," Taz shot back.

When Taz didn't leave Kodak angry, he left him deep in thought about the meaning in his words, and Taz never strayed far from the war.

Back at quarters, Taz went back to methodically cleaning the B.A.R. Kodak took to reading, spending an inordinate amount of time looking over top of The Hobbit at the mystery that was his friend.

Sgt. Jacoby sat at the card table with the map open to mark the LZ they could use to intercept Charlie when the call came. The pictures were of a man focused with his hair plastered to his forehead as the mid-day humidity peaked.

Jacoby was almost never aware of Kodak taking his picture. This time it was the map he examined that had his complete attention. His need for a haircut and a shave was obvious, but it wasn't as bad as when some of the squad let themselves go.

Washington had become very quiet after his near death experience. The happy friendly gopher slept more than seemed usual. These were the pictures of Washington he took, wondering why he had become so remote. Kodak hoped it would soon pass. He liked Washington's energy.

Cohen was always talking about the construction projects his family had undertaken. His phone calls home were usually about business. His family didn't believe in dodging military duty. Cohen had leadership qualities and didn't mind getting his hands dirty. He could have easily gotten a deferment to go to college, but he didn't.

Hale regaled his comrades with stories of racing. He'd describe his competition, their machines, and the tension that went with high speed drag racing. As he ran the race in his head he made accompanying sounds to go with the description. He almost always won for 1st squad.

While photographing an animated Hale going through his paces, he rolled off the back of his chair while shifting gears, proving his dragster to be more stable than his chair. Kodak caught it all on film as 1st squad got a good laugh. This time it was Hale that blushed.

These photos returned with a note from his editor, who was pleased with Kodak's candid shots. They did remember he was out there. The States had gone particularly quiet for Kodak. He realized the war was on TV every night and a still photographer lost somewhere in-country was insignificant.

The 1st squad was no longer an army unit that he tagged along with. They had become his family and friends, the brothers he never had. It was like he belonged with them and they with him.

He was at ease with his rifle squad. It was like going on a picnic or to the beach, you knew when to take pictures and when to relax. Each soldier had a different personality and offered a unique view of men at war.

Sometime during Kodak's second month in Vietnam, he forgot about the first roll of combat pictures he'd taken and kept looking for. Instinctively he knew there would never be any other pictures from his first trial by fire. They had significance only for him. There would never be any more intense pictures than these, but like so much in war, you had to be focused on what you were doing today.

He went about learning his craft as a photo-journalist. He learned by examining closely the prints that created a pictorial record of the war as 1st squad experienced it. He stayed busy looking for new subjects and the perfect shots he saw from time to time.

There were battle pictures. For some reason the mid-clash pictures were rarely in the pile of prints he received back from the States. Was this his paper's idea or the Army's? Besides the first roll of combat pictures, there were others he remembered but had no print to match. Maybe they didn't come out well enough to make prints, he thought.

His access was unlimited. He knew the negatives were back in the world and he'd make sure to collect them once his tour in Vietnam ended. He'd been on pins and needles for weeks at first. Now, he was almost as casual as the regular army soldiers he accompanied.

He enjoyed the flow of the squad when they were highly focused on the mission at hand. Taz remained the subject that most captivated him and he was at the center of most pictorial arrangements. He dominated the battlefield and while his presence in camp was a bit more interactive as time went on, he was an unassuming warrior.

He had begun to open up some to Kodak. His propensity for repartee softened remarkably. The jousting matches he employed to maintain his distance seemed to go out of fashion. Kodak wondered if he'd undergone Taz's version of trial by fire. He was someone Taz couldn't keep at arms length.

Taz was never interested in seeing the prints of himself, while most of the squad gathered around to see each one. Washington returned to his more energetic self as time rolled forward. He was always in the middle of the fray when prints came back to Kodak. At these times Kodak would realize, after seeing one picture, he'd taken two or three similar or at the same time, but where were these?

"Can I have that one," a soldier would say from over Kodak's shoulder.

Kodak dutifully handed it back, not knowing who got which print. The individual prints of each soldier were offered to that soldier first. Each was numbered and if a conflict broke out over a print, Kodak made a note to order a second print and who it was for. His requests were always honored. How did he ask for something that wasn't there?

Kodak kept the pictures of Taz in the back of his latest journal. He thought he might change his mind one day and want to see them and if he didn't Kodak was happy to have them. He saw these pictures as his best work.

The journals were filled with detailed descriptions of the squad's activities. Taz was at the center of most of the detailed prose. Kodak had the most to say about him. It wasn't objective writing but it was honest. A book would come out of it but Kodak didn't know what form the book might take.

Taz and Kodak had become friends. Kodak stopped trying to figure out what made Taz tick and accepted that being around him made him happy. In return, Taz had stopped trying to embarrass Kodak in an attempt to hide his own insecurity concerning sexual matters. This was working for both of them and none of 1st squad ever knew it was a problem.

Taz did have a past and a family, and the stories slowly came out. Kodak was sure it explained the taciturn soldier who had begun opening up. He confided in Kodak that he joined the army to escape his abusive father, forging his signature on his induction papers when he was seventeen.

The other change came in Taz's drinking habits. He continued drinking the beer that flowed irregularly through 1st squad. The liquor bottles no longer appeared. Taz rarely wet his bed after drinking beer. When they went to the shower, they went together, and each showered himself.

Kodak and Taz most often ate together, and Washington and Hale sat with them a lot of the time. Taz rarely said more than a few words with other people around him, and those words usually answered a question directed at him.

That's not to say that Taz didn't try Kodak's patience at times. There was the time Kodak was soaping up his humidity-plastered hair, when he heard his camera clicking away. By the time he got the soap washed out of his eyes, Taz grew hysterical over even Kodak's ears turning red.

Beefcake shots going to his editor wouldn't be seen as professional, he thought, but his editor would have to know he didn't take them, and there were pictures on the roll he didn't want to lose. Being one of the truly spontaneous moments with Taz, he cooled off before he went off.

The thought occurred to him that he should destroy the roll of film. The note that accompanied these pictures back into the war zone got Kodak's attention.

"The Defense Department wants me to inform you that pornographic images aren't allowed, charges pending. Patty and Toni want to know when you're due back. They seem to be keenly interested in part of your personality they hadn't noticed before."

At the bottom was written in small print, "Just kidding about the Defense Department. They're considering using one of your pictures. We hold back what we may use."

They're as in whom? Kodak wondered, before continuing to read. At least someone was looking at his stuff.

"We are putting together some of your pictures in the magazine section for one of our Sunday editions. I'll keep you posted. Any notes you've taken might be helpful. Keep up the good work."

"Huh," Kodak said to himself. "They're going to finally use some of the pictures. Better late than never, I suppose."

The pictures he took this week were the ones he remembered best. Next weeks pictures would be the ones he remembered the week after. With months of photography behind him, remembering individual photos for more than a few days was difficult.

It all blended together as one day merged with the next. He could no longer separate the days. It was almost like being suspended in time. He no more could destroy any of the photos that marked his time in-country than he'd leave 1st squad or Taz. He was part of them now, and time was part of something else.

When he got back to quarters, he separated the nude shots from the ones he'd show to the squad, putting them in the back of his latest journal.

Kodak's journals were incomplete, even though he envisioned two books coming out of them. He already decided to separate Taz from 1st squad in a separate book about him. Even as they drew closer to one another, Kodak considered Taz to be an extraordinary soldier. He'd need to figure out how to start such a book, but all he had was time.

Kodak's writing took almost as much time as his reading by the time his third month ended with 1st squad. Each new event added fresh material for Kodak. Instead of letting it rip as he described or recounted something, he took more time to search for better words and better ways of describing similar events.

There were some brutal battles coming closer to the camp. Kodak noticed the barbed wire surrounding the airfield on one of Kodak's visits. On the following visit he saw the guard towers standing every fifty yards at the edge of the tarmac inside the wire. A month later the road leading to the airfield had several checkpoints, manned by MPs. One set of guard posts was at the newly installed gate next to the tarmac.

The jeep driver was waved right through going in both directions, but Kodak had light hair, lighter skin, and didn't represent someone they'd suspect. It was a sign of the increasing security. The danger was coming closer to 1st squad.

Temple, Washington, Hale, and Taz were all that was left of Sgt. Jacoby's squad from when Kodak arrived. There was a seam between these men and the new guys. Kodak sat and talked easily with them, but wasn't able to feel as at ease with the newer soldiers, and he knew why.

Everyone was equal in front of his camera, when they went out on patrol, but he rarely took shots of the new guys around camp. As the weeks and months passed, these new guys came, were replaced, and some of their replacements were replaced, while the original five and Kodak remained a tightly knit group.

It was two months after mentioning it before his paper sent him the copy of the magazine section with six of his pictures featured in a Vietnam story. It wasn't about 1st squad at all, although Kodak remembered he hadn't sent them any of his notes. Only Jacoby and Hale were featured in individual photos and the group pictures they selected didn't show Taz or Washington in them, which left Kodak disappointed.

Kodak noticed Taz had been aging since they'd met, when he went through the pictures he'd taken of him over time. While Kodak was a year older than Taz, it was hard to relate to him as a younger man. He carried himself like a more mature guy.

It was easy to see that when Taz came or went, the newer guys stood aside, giving him free passage. Each knew his life might well depend on the man with the big rifle, because he was possessed and a demon in combat. Otherwise they steered clear of him.

Kodak's bunk had become the center of the old timer's downtime. None of them paid much attention when Kodak went into the photo-journalist mode. Each knew he'd see the results when they returned. Beyond that he was simply one of the squad. This attitude made Kodak's job nearly routine.

The card games continued and it was the only time 'new meat' and old timers spent time together when they weren't out on patrol. Sgt. Jacoby stood in the middle ground. He favored the old timers but he did all within his power to protect each new guy as he came to 1st squad.

Jacoby was probably in his mid-twenties but his face, especially around his eyes, made him look older. The gray hair began appearing at his temples with a few longer strands invading the top of his freshly cut hair. Kodak noticed the subtle changes in the prints that came back from the world. He set aside any that he thought distressing.

If Jacoby knew the outcome when one of our guys was hit, he didn't say. No one asked. When a guy left the squad, his bunk was folded along with the blanket and anything else that was there. When a new guy arrived, he would set the cot back up and that was his bunk without anyone mentioning the last resident.

You were wise not to think about the last soldier. Kodak had pictures of everyone who came through 1st squad during his time in-country. He didn't look at the faces of the men who died or those who had been wounded. What was the point?

At the time when a soldier left the unit, Kodak picked out the best prints he had of the man, sending them to his editor, asking him to send them to the soldier's family, when appropriate. Kodak had written a formal letter in the beginning of his time in-country that covered who he was and that he'd taken these pictures of this soldier as part of a photographic record of his time in Vietnam.

Kodak thought about everyone he photographed. He created a complicated numbering system to tell him who was on which roll of film. When someone was wounded or killed, he would notify his editor. The editor picked out the pictures indicated, sending them along with a copy of the earlier letter to the family.

There was no way for Kodak to know if his editor did it or not, but he'd done all he could. He'd contact each man's family once he returned to the world and tell them what a fine soldier the man was.

This was the kind of thing Kodak was driven to do. It was the right thing. He'd worked out the numbering system and the letter to simplify matters. This made it a bookkeeping chore, which gave him less time to think about it.

Kodak had been asked to reduce his trips to the airfield to twice a month. This was a security measure for non-combatant personnel. Kodak didn't read this as a good sign. The lax attitude obvious when he arrived had become more and more severe. The war was intensifying and getting closer to 1st squad and everyone knew it.

Kodak was good as long as he had the camera between him and the men he recorded on film. When they saw the prints, they'd be excited, bashful, and at times flattered. The reaction provided more material about the men.

Hale and Washington remained his best allies, but Taz had become his best friend. He laughed at the idea of it. He'd never met anyone as contrary as Taz, but slowly the confrontational relationship mellowed.

It took some time for Kodak to find out Taz had been orphaned at an early age. The father he spoke of and hated, and who kept a strap on the back of the kitchen door just for Taz, was his adopted father, but the only father he'd known. He was an outsider at home and wasn't allowed to forget it. He was expected to eat modestly, ask for nothing, and not to take up too much space.

Taz treaded lightly at home, until he couldn't take it any more. He fought his first war at home before he decided to go to Vietnam. He trusted no one, having a low opinion of the world he was born into.

He reluctantly admitted to trusting Kodak, because he had proven to be trustworthy. Kodak had acted like he wanted to know Taz and once Taz decided he couldn't discourage him any longer, he let Kodak know something about him. The more time that passed the more he told him.

Kodak didn't have a father, but he had three sisters and he was probably pampered, especially when he considered Taz and how he was raised. Kodak had always loved life but it was a lonely love he practiced by himself.

Even without a father, he knew he was luckier than Taz had been. After his sisters decided to make his life miserable, he still had a home where he was comfortable and well fed. He'd always wanted to have a close friend, but until Taz, he didn't have one.

Taz would have gladly given his father to Kodak and he was just as happy being alone, until Kodak came along. With their different approaches to life, they managed to enjoy one another's company. It had been a friendship slow in developing.

One afternoon the camp came alive with an energy Kodak had never sensed before. Charlie was close by. One of the squads had been hit, and hit hard. There was barbed wire strung and the guard posts were doubled on the trip into the base. Each squad was responsible to have a man on guard at all times, which brought the war up close.

There were several more brutal firefights, and all the squads went into the field at the same time. Charlie's strength in the area had increased and another company was moved in to bivouac inside the wire and was quickly joined by a second company that set up camp on the opposite side of the airbase just inside the wire there.

The number of helicopters speeding overhead, coming and going from the camp's LZ, increased. 1st squad was loading onto one more often on patrol. Jeeps came speeding up past the row of tents on the way to the headquarters' building. The increased activity alerted 1st squad that there was a new intensity to the war.

A few weeks later Kodak took an early jeep into the airfield to send off his latest film, and upon his return he found bulldozers clearing the jungle away from the back of 1st squad's tent. By the time they stopped there was another compound twice the size of the original camp.

More tents sprung up in long rows. More soldiers came in deuce-and-a-half trucks to fill the tents. The LZ at the top of camp tripled in size and helicopters sat at the ready during daylight hours. The noise and activity increased by the day and an MP post was installed at the entrance of the new facility.

The buzz was all bad. Charlie had been infiltrating the area for months. They were there one minute, gone the next. The idea the enemy was living and disappearing underground was new in the area and difficult to reconcile with normal military tactics, but nearby underground complexes were found.

The Tunnel Rats came to destroy the holes where Charlie had disappeared. They discovered corridors leading away from the tunnel entrance. There were underground barracks, mess halls, medical facilities, and supply depots. The enemy was living right under the US Army's feet. Being there one minute and gone the next was explained in a most unsettling way.

Now the Tunnel Rats became explorers, adventurers, crawling through a maze of chambers inside the holes. This made it possible, even likely, that the Tunnel Rat might encounter the enemy inside his lair, which did nothing for morale, but they kept going into the holes.

Once an enemy maze was located the explosives squad was called and they wired it from one end to the other to render the site useless to the enemy. The question remained, how many more of these hideouts were there? Tear gas was employed whenever possible. Once it was in the holes, you couldn't tell what might come out.

Going down into a hole was one of the most dangerous duties there was. Soon after tear gas became the way to clear the enemy out of their holes, gas masks began showing up underground. Charlie didn't hesitate to do whatever it took to stay one step ahead of the US Army. Charlie was adaptable, mobile, and persistent.

Kodak saw a man from another squad strip to his waist and with a knife in his teeth, he slithered into a newly discovered hole. Wanting to know what it was like, Kodak asked to go down. He didn't get far before he wanted to get out. It was pitch black and a little like being buried alive, Kodak confessed.

One morning, with little notice the squad was told to form up and report to the new chopper pad. Several other squads were already waiting to be transported into what was termed a hot zone. It was the usual orderly wait. Charlie was everywhere at once.

With six squads in the field, the utmost caution was necessary to keep from shooting at each other. The sergeants formed a circle and compared maps, checking their watches to estimate the time it would take to make it from the transit point to the center of the area where Charlie had been seen in large numbers.

It was all relatively simple, and by the time the first helicopter lifted off, the leaders of the expedition were satisfied with their information. 1st squad received no briefing. They went out to search and destroy. Keep moving and don't fall back.

Each squad was responsible to keep their ears, as well as their eyes, open. If they heard gunfire it was important to head in that direction to offer assistance as fast as possible. Charlie was getting bolder and the job of intercepting him more difficult.

It took fifteen minutes for their turn to come to load. Taz sat by the door. Kodak had taken a place behind the door gunner, photographing his squad as they checked and rechecked their equipment. No one paid any attention to Kodak's new location. He was always moving around for a better shot.

Taz was somber and never broke a smile as Kodak shot his face, its intensity, and the man behind the brooding eyes. Kodak ignored the helicopter's maneuvers, being completely focused on his work, using the back of the co-pilots seat to steady himself.

Once the chopper leveled off, he turned to get shots of the driver and his co-pilot, which brought warm smiles his way. These men were confident and in control. The flight time seemed short as the helicopter banked in to approach the latest LZ.

Kodak's planned exit from the chopper depended on split second reactions if he was to get out of the door to photograph first squad as they hit the ground.

He could feel the helicopter losing altitude as it leveled out on its approach to whatever flat spot they'd picked out to place 1st squad in the position to carry out the day's patrol.

Kodak's plan also depended on the squad and how fast they could move, which was no more than a minute to belch out first man to last. The biggest obstacle would be Taz, who had great timing in making his turn, while still seated, to get himself out onto the ground.

On this day the routine was going to change. Kodak figured he had the advantage, because he could see the ground from his place behind the door-gunner. Taz could only estimate when the descent ended and exiting began, with Taz leading 1st squad out of the door.

Not even Kodak realized it yet, but when he leaped from the helicopter first to take the pictures he had in his mind, he was leaping into the unknown that was always waiting for you in war. He caught Taz glancing at him once he moved out from behind the door-gunner and out of the chopper door.

He backed quickly toward the tail rotor of the helicopter, clicking pictures as he went. It was all he hoped it would be as Taz leaped into the scene, big rifle at the ready. It was all he imagined and more.

He heard some persistent crackling sounds that disturbed him. It was a little like a string of firecrackers popping off on the 4th of July. It was a lot like AK-47 fire.

Taz had followed him out the door as planned, but that's where the plan went south. Immediately, as Kodak clicked off one picture after another of his hero, he realized what the sound was, once Taz opened up to spray the area with B.A.R. fire.

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