by Tom Helgeson
Ronnie Dunham sat atop a firebase bunker, staring at the blank pad of paper, struggling to compose a passable lie to tell his mother. His need for deception was due to a new nickname, bestowed upon him after a recent encounter in the field. For a good week after the episode, the sight of PFC Ronnie Dunham invariably elicited the response of “Rub-A-Dub-Dub” from the members of his company. The informal greeting gradually morphed into the shortened form and Ronnie Dunham became “Rub-A-Dub” Dunham, a re-christening he wished he could have avoided.
His mother had learned of his nickname when Ronnie sent two rolls of film back to the world with his buddy, Russell Post, when his tour was over. The fact that several previous rolls of film had failed to reach his parents led Ronnie to buy into the conspiracy theory that G.I.s in the mail system in the rear were stealing rolls of film in hopes of procuring combat photos. Ronnie had addressed the envelope to his parents, and Russell mailed it when he got home to Iowa, a hop, skip and a jump from Ronnie's hometown in Wisconsin. However, his rice paddy sensibilities still loitering, Russell added the unauthorized “a.k.a. Rub-A-Dub" after Ronnie's name on the return address. Now Ronnie's mother wanted to know why he was known as "Rub-A-Dub."
Ronnie knew his mother's curiosity was in part prompted by her suspicions that he was feeding her the Boy Scout camp version of his experiences: the weather, the food, the firebases, the guys, the Vietnamese kids. Now she was asking for this little piece of specific information, something more intimate, something that might give her a glimpse of the true nature of her son's existence. The reality of that morning was the one thing Ronnie was not about to provide.
It was just after sunrise and he was on point as his squad cautiously headed back to the company's defensive perimeter after an uneventful night ambush. They were on a narrow trail, paralleling a small river a few meters to their left. Minutes after leaving their position, Ronnie heard water splashing. He raised his hand to stop the small column and, in less than ten slow, cautious steps, found himself on a elevated bank overlooking the water. He saw the rifles first, leaning against a large rock on the other side of the shallow, twenty-foot wide stream. Motion and noise just below and to his right drew his attention to three men, standing waist deep in a water-filled bomb crater at the near edge of the river, not fifty feet away. They were softly talking, laughing and splashing water at each other. A bar of soap floated beside them. Ronnie took one step forward, brought his rifle to his shoulder and swung the muzzle toward the men. Their heads turned in unison to look up at him in his commanding position and Ronnie’s blue eyes met their gazes for a split second. There was shock and surprise on their young faces, followed by what Ronnie only later interpreted as a request for mercy in their eyes. It was too late. The better part of eighteen rounds was already out the door and the rest followed in a heartbeat. He didn't remember pulling the trigger. He wanted to believe the gun had fired itself.
The splashes in the water around the men made Ronnie question his aim. Then, as the last shell casing ejected, all three men suddenly dropped, as if a trap door had opened under them. It seemed too easy, too cheap, like they were overeager extras in a John Wayne Western. The Duke fires his Winchester and three Indians fall off their horses. The punctured bodies floated back to the surface, clad in the Vietnamese version of boxer shorts, as his squad arrived on scene. All three were face up, side by side, discipline and order restored in death. The rest of the company began arriving minutes later and two platoons were ordered across the river to secure the far side. Ronnie knew his role. Someone had to accept the pats on the back and he was clearly the man of the hour. Not moving from his perch, he played the part, tipping his helmet back on his head and casually resting his M16 skyward against his hip, a pose that asserted Veni, Vidi, Vici.
As groups of men passed, congratulating and questioning him, Ronnie repeatedly explained the scenario, taking pains to point out the rifles, doing his best to paint them into the picture. Though he knew it didn’t matter to the men, the distance between the Viet Cong and their weapons bothered him. An anonymous voice muttered in passing, “three more Charlies down and a million more to go.” “True,” thought Ronnie, “everyone out here was on call to be judge, jury and executioner.” It was Sergeant Wagner, in the middle of the procession, who paused, pointed at the three trophies still bobbing in the now reddish water, and made the irreverent proclamation:
“Rub-A-Dub-Dub, three men in a tub. Goes to show ya’: never, ever take a bath in the field.” The opening phrase stuck like a memorable line from an epic movie.
Ronnie wished these three dead men, his first three dead men, had been given that advice. Words from a nursery rhyme reminded him of their humanity. He felt derelict, knowing his responsibility for these three souls ended at counting them. He felt that he owed them a eulogy, something that included the words “dearly departed.”
But these were the ‘bad guys,’ Ronnie reminded himself. No quarter asked and none given. That was the unwritten rule here. Only his mother was not here. If he revealed to her the turn of events as they happened, he imagined she would say “You had to do it. It was your duty,” the tone of her voice betraying realization that some part of her son’s heart had hardened.
Ronnie knew the story might have been different. If he had only paused, just maybe the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker would have raised their hands in surrender. That story would have brought that wonderful light to his mother's eyes, that special smile to her face, the one that said, “Oh, that's my Ronnie. I'm so proud of you.”
That's why his mother could never hear this story. Maybe no one in his previous life – if he made it back to his previous life – should hear this story. Three skeletons crammed into a nineteen-year-old closet. Glory wrapped in guilt.
So he put pen to paper. “It's nothing, Mother. ‘Dub’ is the Vietnamese word for ‘coconut.’ I was rubbing the fuzz of one before splitting it and Russell called me ‘Rub-A-Dub.’ That's all there is to it.” Putting his signature after “love you" prompted a P.S. with some degree of honest disclosure.
“It's just a joke, mom. It's all just a bad joke.”