Monday, March 06, 2006


The first time I saw him he was walking alone, about 100 yards away, coming toward me along perimeter road which ran just outside the fenced off flight-line at Da Nang Airbase, South Vietnam. A kind of strangeness seemed to surround him and even precede him. It was almost as if he was the character “Pig Pen” in a Peanuts cartoon. The red dust stirred up from the hot August road, by the passing convoy of troop trucks and repositioning tanks, seemed to hover more over and around him than anywhere else along the road. It seemed intent on drifting toward him, not from attraction, but as a deliberate added burden. He looked a little out of place, a little dirtier, a little shorter, even a little lonelier than those giving him quiet puzzled looks from the passing traffic. Even at that distance, I knew he was different; especially different from me.

I may not have watched this stranger any longer had it not been for a deep ominous rumbling that at first seemed to be announcing his approach. I think it was the earth vibrating beneath my feet, that soon increased and slowly moved up my body, that first caused me to attribute an evil aura to Henry Maddux (Not really his name, but one given to him in a fictional manuscript I wrote about 10 years ago, however he was real! See However, the rumbling was coming from “Big Bertha”, a name emblazoned on her side by her contingent of support staff that now road atop her as she rumbled along beside Tent City. “Bertha” was a tank wrecker and outweighed her benefactors by several tons.

Before I could look away, after recognizing Bertha from previous dusty encounters, one of the Army troops, atop her back, hurled an empty C-Ration can down at the lone Marine pedestrian, who was obviously lost in his own world. The can bounced off Henry’s backpack, braking his trance and shocking him back into the present realm. I started to laugh, as did Bertha’s children, but drew up short as Henry unslung his M1A as quickly as any western gunfighter. However, he also checked himself and stopped what seemed a natural reaction and re-shouldered his weapon. By then he was close enough that I could sense slight embarrassment in his expression. He let it pass and Bertha rolled on without incident, but her children sat quietly as if sensing that it had been his will and not theirs.

As he passed within a few yards I could see several days growth of beard and miles of dirt setting lightly upon his face and clothes. The dust had added to the strange aura; catching the fading light of day and framing him in a kind of eerie glow. He hadn’t just come from the Marine side of Da Nang, he had come from “the bush” and was weighted down with what he had experienced there. Yes, he was different from the others, and very different from me. I had spent 2 months restricted to the airbase, not really seeing war for what it was. I wanted to know what he had seen, and just at that moment I saw him turn toward the guard shack at the entrance to Tent City. This area was for Air Force personnel! Where was he going?

I watched as he got directions from the AP on duty, and yes, he was pointing in my direction. Why? Had he read my thoughts? Or had God?

And to my complete surprise, he was walking my way. I suddenly became aware of the card game and friends I had left moments before inside the six-man tent behind me - comfort I guess, in case I needed them. From what I wasn’t sure.

Henry stopped in front of me and asked if I knew his hometown friend, Bill (not his real name either, but I can't really remember). He had to repeat the question, because of my total involvement with his appearance and strange presence. As it turned out, Bill bunked with me and four other Airmen. I took him inside and went over to the card table and told my friend that he had a visitor. We all looked toward the tent opening at a dark silhouette standing between us and the fading red sunset. "Who is it?" asked Bill.

Henry stepped into the light of the dangling incandescent bulb and was instantly recognized by Bill. Bill started to embrace him but because of the filthy figure before him, focused all his welcome into a hardy handshake which filled the immediate area with a cloud of red road dust!

To make a long story short, we all settled back into card playing and beer drinking. Bill did most of the talking, telling about back-home stories and Henry just set near by grunting his acknowledgment of past teenage tall tales and sucked down beer after beer. He had a lot of road dust to settle and as it turned out, a lot of recent memories to soothe.

Henry was different than the others, and a lot different from me. He had seen the real side of war; the worst side. He was actually a killer; created by his government. He wasn’t like those of us who merely stood guard over the war machines, or dropped bombs and napalm from the sky on faceless victims. He hunted his prey and saw them close up, at the end of a dark tunnel with a little round window at the end, sectioned off by a hatch-marked cross - a high-power scope. Henry had been selected, due to some marksmanship skill and loner qualities, probably, to be a sniper. Luck of the draw perhaps, or maybe predestined to have a stirring witness to share with others; who’s to say.

Whatever he had been, his life was changed forever. He may have seen a different cross on Sunday mornings back home, but now when he thought of a cross it had a different meaning. Henry sat that night, after freeing his tongue with beer, and mesmerized us with visions hard for us to see. The card game soon stopped, as all attention turned to Henry. From behind a glassy far away look, he described seeing heads split open like watermelons, up close and personal; just behind the sniper’s X. The cross that ended life instead of giving it. He was sent out to do this for 2 and 3 weeks at a time. No one else around to talk it out with. Just him alone to work out the rhyme and reason for it.

While others were on R&R leave enjoying Seoul, Tokyo, or Honolulu, Henry had arrived after a 3 day walk to find his hometown friend. The probable plan was to lighten his load and reach out for reality again. I don't know if that ever happened, be some of his burden still lies with me today.

He was different from the others. He was different from me. He had been given an experience in life that few were offered and fewer chose. Was it because he was different? Maybe a loner? Was it because those that choose knew he had no home life and no particular religious convictions? Or did he choose that role for some dark reason of his own? Or, was it just God’s will?

Whatever the difference, I’m glad I had the background that would not have allowed me to accept it. I understand now that God’s will makes the only difference in the paths we chose. We’re all called to a particular mission in life, and whatever that is, that’s God’s will. For whatever reason Henry choose to accept a sniper's mission, something in his background was different enough to let him make the choice. I feel that differences in predestination may be based on our background. The background we give our children determines what they will accept in life and God’s ultimate will for them.

Henry’s path may have been determined by the lack of a family to support him and to teach him. Whatever it was, it was enough to make him different enough that an omnipotent God choose him to fit the special role of being a sniper. I couldn’t figure it out then, but I knew I was different enough to make me appreciate what I had waiting back home, and for a living God to guide my life in a different direction.

I don’t know what happened to this man I’ve named Henry, but I do know we don’t have the right to judge. We don’t know the will of God. He did what he did for his country and that’s Biblically acceptable. Because of that role, chosen for him, he may now stand tall in some church as a strong witness, with his head held high, looking up and through a different cross - a saving cross. It just may have been the whole point of it all! After all, the Apostle Paul also chose to kill for his religion, but look and listen to the witness he made after being forgiven and called by the Grace of God.

We are what we are because of a divine plan - that’s His job. Finding the reason for it is our job.
For more on the fictionalized "Henry Maddox" go to or go to


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ray Charles once said, "I got to do what I do!" Evidently Henry was good at what he did and he did it.