Gary Jacobson

PAPASON

An old withered man came toddling out,
In wonderment at confusions hue And shout,
While his hooch walls
Grim faced soldiers bayoneted.
He bobbed his head
With high-pitched alien words fretted.
“Old man, be nice,”
A grunt shouted,
As he turned over papason’s basket of rice
Searching for booby traps, weapons, something,
Anything.

Decked for war, I stood a solemn guard,
Hovering over this old Montagnard
Standing forlorn in his yard,
For papason had no right
In this unfortunate plight;
Not in the killing zone.
Not out here all alone.

This was a “Search and destroy” mission,
And if papason gave us half a reason.
My platoon spread out waiting on the fighting line
Without compunction would kill him today
Blow his miserable hide away.
Why did he have to live here,
Anyway?
Didn’t he know Charley loomed near?
Knew he no fear?
Didn’t he know there would come this day,
If in the killing zone he chose to stay?

As he toddled towards me,
A GI standing strong and tall,
With wrinkled brow and grayish pall
I leveled my M-16 on this old Vietcong
Standing so frail,
Wondering what he held In his
cupped hand trying to hail,
Was it a knife to cut me?
A gun to wound me?
A grenade to blow up in my face;
Splatter my brains all over the place?

Motioning with M-16 barrel menacing
I tried to signal papason back,
But weaving and wobbling,
Papason continued the frontal attack.

Ortel laughed from under a tree.
“Papason’s up to no good that I can see.”
“Better watch that old Viet Cong brigand.”
Then I saw what he held in his trembling hand.

Papason held a small glass of steaming tea,
Which bowing, He tried to give in honor to me.
In polite courtesy
In this impolite world of incivility.
Stretching to reach again with a polite little bow,
Papason proffered his herbal brew
Now again
And yet again.

“Don’t dare take it,”
Shouted Ortel.
“What’s in that brew you never can tell.”
“Probably poison,” snickered Snyder.
“Papason wants to send you straight to hell.”

I tried to explain to Papason why
I couldn’t drink his cup of steaming tea,
Not with everybody watching, see.
But papason, not understanding me,
Just kept offering me his tea.

Papason couldn’t understand why
We bayoneted his hooch.
Why we poured his rice in the dust?
Why we rousted him out
With angered, murderous shout?
Why the men swarming around at him cursed,
Glared with eyes filled with hatred,
Deep embers burning with distrust,
For a harmless old papason
Showed flagrant disgust.

His ancient eyes questioned why
I dishonored him by not taking his brew.
It was the gracious, oriental thing to do.
Papason whined in a sing-song
That made some men laugh,
Tho’ he’d done no wrong.
Rather, to him was done wrong,
But what was a GI to do?
Papason was out in the killing zone,
Out with the Vietcong all alone.

Then my platoon moved on
Continuing our “Search and Destroy” mission,
But papason had made a deep impression.
I still hear that old man’s sigh;
See confused hurt welling in his eye.
But I wasn’t about to wait.
Who was I to tempt cruel war’s fate?
I was just one man,
Couldn’t he understand?

With agonizing guilt from time
To time
I think back on papason,
Though 33 years have come and gone.

We’d with war’s incivility abused him
And then in destitution left him
To be in the killing zone,
Old and so all alone.

Then I remembered a battlefield
Called the “Rockpile,”
My good buddy Jim,
Brawny face with a perpetual smile,
Killed by a papason just like him.