The recon patrol was wasted, punched out from climbing the high country of Chalatenango along El Salvador’s border with Honduras. Camera equipment bag riding heavy in my pack, I had joined the government’s patrol in Las Palmas to gather material for magazine articles.
We cut down off the side of a mountain and entered a jungle at the bottom of the draw. A cattle trail or goat path or whatever followed the floor of the draw. The draw became a canyon that gradually narrowed between high sheer walls. The patrol waded into a clear stream. We splashed our hot faces and dunked our heads before saddling up again and moving on.
It happened just as it happens in an auto accident. One moment you’re doing sixty down the expressway and the next a Peterbilt crosses the centerline roaring directly at you. The canyon simply exploded with automatic rifle and machine-gun fire as commie guerrillas opened up on us in an ambush.
I thought the world had blown up in my face.
Then it slowed down to quarter-speed. It almost stopped. The scream that had pierced the first thick rumble-rattle of gunfire now seemed to come out of the center of the cosmos, the primal scream, and it pierced through eternity. An eternity was how long it seemed to take our radioman to fall to earth.
A bullet from the first bursts of the ambush had caught him in the eye. Pink mist and the scream exploded from his skull. Sergeant Vasconcelos’s dark face, written exaggerated with terror at the sight, turned toward his soldier. Pink mist sprayed upon his face like paint from a high-pressure can. Vasconcelos’s own scream shredded the wind. He sounded like a gull in a hurricane whose cry had been ripped from its throat.
The ambush was over. One dead. I stood in the jungle clearing looking down upon the dead soldier.
“He is my amigo,” Vasconcelos said. “Now he is dead.”
I put my arm around his shoulders.
“What happened to you in Central America?” Kovic demanded. “Jack, lots of men have lost an arm. But it’s not just that, is it? Talk to me about it, buddy? What happened to you?”