War Music, by Timothy Caldwell

14 March 1970

U.S. Army Base, Can Tho, South Vietnam


“Man plans and God laughs.” If the Yiddish saying was true, then God had been having a good chuckle over my plans in 1969. Why else would I be on an Army base in Vietnam in March 1970? Why else would I be listening to stoned white and black teenagers battling to drown out each other’s music, their stereos cranked up loud enough to wake the dead?

I had a graduate degree in music, and I was supposed to be conducting choirs and teaching singing at the University of Dubuque. Instead, I was in the lower bed of a double bunk that was shrouded in mosquito netting, on the ground floor of a two-story wooden hooch, my ears stuffed with toilet paper.

My ethereal world of music had been reduced to one of simple survival that was represented by a mantra that I whispered over and over as I attempted to go to sleep: Under the bunk, helmet on, flak jacket on.

I had been using it since my hospital visits with the chaplain. I was his assistant and bodyguard (something I did not know until I arrived in Vietnam), so I accompanied him on his trips off-base to the Air Force field hospital. When I talked to soldiers injured in mortar attacks, they said they had been hit while running to bunkers. I had decided that lying flat under my bunk during a nighttime attack seemed like a safe alternative. The musical melee finally ended at some point, and I fell asleep.

The explosion dragged me back to consciousness. I came fully awake to discover that I was cowering under my bunk, my helmet was on, and my flak jacket was over me.

“Incoming,” a man’s voice yelled as feet pounded on the wooden floor overhead. I was lying on the cement floor as men shuffled, grunted, and ran into one another as they fled to the safety of the bunkers that sat on either end of the hooch. My eyes were open, but I couldn’t see anything in the blackness of the humid night.

The attack siren screeched its way up the scale. More explosions came, each one giving off bright flashes of light that strobed the night as the acrid smell of gunpowder drifted in. Overhead, on the second floor, men yelled; several screamed.

What the hell, I wondered.

I shuddered with each explosion because every muscle in my body wanted to move, to find shelter. I uttered profanities between clenched teeth as a murderous fear played through me. I wanted to kill the bastards who were shelling us. Between curses, I told myself: “Do not run!”

The shelling felt like it went on for hours, but it was probably only three or four minutes. Then there was silence.

Was it over? The silence stretched into a minute, then two. The siren sounded the “all clear,” and lights came on. I slid out from under my bunk. Overhead, I heard calls for medics mixed with swearing and the sound of boots running on the wooden floor.

A sergeant, wearing a helmet and flak jacket came into the hooch yelling, “Anyone get hit? Anyone injured?”

“OK, Sergeant,” I called out as I put on my fatigues and boots. Several other soldiers answered as well. No one had come through after previous mortar attacks, so I was curious why he was here.

“Sergeant? Will there be a head count?”


“What happened on the second floor?”

“Shit happened!” he said. “First mortar hit the tin roof on this hooch. I figure it was pretty much directly above you.” His eye flicked upward. “The kid in the top bunk was right under it. He was fuckin’ sliced and diced. The man below him got cut up pretty bad, too.”

Sirens were coming from the other side of the base.

“Thanks,” I said as he hustled away to meet them.

My legs felt weak and I was light-headed, so I sat on my bunk and put my head down between my knees. That could have been me, I thought. A little change in the trajectory and the mortar would have landed on the ground on the other side of the wall next to my bunk. I would have died in my sleep, like that guy. I glanced up and felt salty water at the back of my throat: I was about to heave.

I ran, hoping that I could keep from vomiting until I was outside. It was a false alarm—my nausea lessened as soon as I was out of the hooch. I bent over, my hands on my knees, and waited for the feeling to pass completely. I felt shaky, and my heart was racing. I needed to move, so I walked away from the hooch, past another hooch where soldiers sat smoking something that did not smell like cigarettes.

I came to one of the sandy roads that ran the length of the base. The warm breeze felt good after the torpid stillness of the air in the hooch. Buildings on each side of the road had lights over their front entrances that cast dim ovals of light onto the road. I walked slowly, passing between patches of light that alternated with dim shadows.

Another explosion. I hit the dirt before my brain caught up with my reflexes. Outgoing, I thought. The Special Forces guys and Big Bertha are securing the perimeter. I glanced around as I dusted my fatigues off and was glad no one had seen my newbie dive.

I felt as if I had awakened while sleepwalking. All the buildings came into focus, and the sky was clear and filled with stars. I looked around and realized I had walked to the other side of the base. How long have I been walking? I wondered.

The company mess hall was on my right, and the central processing morgue sat twenty yards beyond the mess. There, an olive-drab ambulance sat in the front of the morgue; two attendants were pulling a black body bag out of the back and onto a stainless steel cart. As they rolled the cart through the open double doors, I wondered if that was the kid from my hooch.

I had met some of the other soldiers, helicopter pilots, who had been killed. It made no sense to me that we could be joking one day and I would be playing for their memorial services two days later. Each loss felt like it gouged out a piece of the hope I carried inside me. This was no “feathered thing” perched on my soul, but a fierce desire, a need, to go home to my wife whom I’d been forced to leave. Marriage and music anchored my existence. That life was on the other side of the world, and I was connected to it only by the tenuous threads of memory.

This was my life now—there was no way home. I was surrounded by the iron ordnance of war, which death could pass through to snatch my life away in an instant. I’d learned tonight that when I lay down to sleep, I might never wake up.

The base chapel, where I worked, sat across the road from the morgue. I needed a sense of order, a tiny island in the sea of randomness. I needed music.

I opened the wooden double doors, flicked on the overhead lights, and went to a badly tuned upright piano that hugged the wall next to a side door near the podium. My copy of J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, lay open on it. I pulled out the wooden bench, sat down, and turned to Prelude 1, the easiest piece in the collection. I moved my shoulders and shook my arms, hoping to loosen the muscles that felt rigid with tension. I took a breath, then began.

It was terrible. The piano sounded worse than ever, and my fingers felt numb, as if I were wearing gloves. The keys looked strange; even the printed music looked strange.

I fumbled, stuttered, started, stopped.

I began again, then stopped.

Jesus! It’s as if I never had lessons! Okay, check the key signature. Check the meter. Find the beat. Hear the music in your head, goddammit!

But I couldn’t hear the music in my head. All I heard were explosions, sounds of running, screams. I was crying.

I pounded my hands on the keys. The bench fell over when I stood up, slammed the cover of the keyboard closed, and then smacked the top of the piano. I couldn’t stop crying.

What’s happening to me? I couldn’t breathe. I was drowning in the humidity. My heart raced, and my hands and feet went numb. The edges of my vision turned black as I staggered out the side door and into the gloom, where I collapsed onto the dusty ground.

I don’t know how long I lay there before the sounds in my head faded and my breathing slowed. I was exhausted and in a twilight state, drifting between wakefulness and sleep. I might have slept—I don’t remember. But I do remember the feeling of waking up: the feeling of my ears opening as well as my eyes, like breaching the water’s surface after a deep dive.

The base was silent, and the sky was full of stars. The Southern Cross was directly overhead. How many thousands of years ago had the light I was seeing left those stars?  As I lay there, covered by darkness, I felt my senses slowly open as feelings of wonder and awe seeped into my core of loneliness.

I got up. As I dusted myself off, from somewhere deep inside my mind, sounds returned. They were not sounds of war but the voices of loved ones, friends coming to share their lives for brief moments. They were the opening chords of the prelude calling me back to the piano.

At first, my fingers stumbled, but soon the music began to flow, glide, and sway. It curved, turned corners, and arched as it penetrated the dust-filled air of the empty chapel. The prelude ended, but on I went to the fugue. The musical lines rose and fell, luring me into worlds where sound ruled with soft forms. An unexpected harmony broke through like the smile of a mischievous child. “Play with me,” Bach said.

Prelude led to fugue; fugue to another prelude. The music became clearer, more vivid, and the dilapidated piano sounded more resonant. Here were harmonies, shapes, colors, sonorous dreams that moved through the turbid heat, echoing across centuries: Bach to me.

I sat at the piano as the tropical night dragged itself toward morning, music encircling me and holding Vietnam at a distance for a few brief moments. There in the circle of melodies and rhythms, the long-dead master communed with his distant child. He ushered me into a small sphere of tranquility and order in the presence of war, teaching me that even in the midst of chaos and insanity, beauty could survive. Music would endure.



Timothy Caldwell served in the Army as a chaplain’s assistant in Vietnam in 1970. In 1972, he began a career as a singer and teacher of singing in higher education that lasted almost forty years. He published his semi-autobiographical novel, The Chaplain’s Assistant: God, Country, and Vietnam, in 2009. His essays and short stories have appeared in the Blue Lake Literary Review, Crab Creek Review, Storyteller Magazine, and Lunch Ticket Magazine. He is set upon becoming the Grandma Moses of authors.

%d bloggers like this: