The motion of the boat had begun to make young John Kerry sick. If he were back home, his mom would rub his tummy and give him an aspirin to calm his nerves. But this wasn’t home. This was Nam. Or somewhere near Nam.
They were cruising the MeKong. While his boat mates were busy getting stoned and listening to Jefferson Airplane, John was busy writing letters home. Oh god, how he wanted to be home. He signed off his letter to his girlfriend with a flourished signature – Sensitively yours, Johnny – then cursed aloud when he realized he had run out of stamps. One of his boat mates heard his four-letter utterance.
“What’s the matter, Johnny? Can’t find something to rhyme with roses are red?”
The other guys laughed, like they always did when John was the butt of the joke.
“Ha. Ha. Very funny. I ran out of stamps.”
The captain of the boat shot a furtive glance to one of the other guys, a lanky redhead whose eyes often matched the color of his hair. John didn’t see the look, but Red did. And he got the message.
“Here ya go, Johnny. I’ve got a stamp for you.” Red reached into his pocket and pulled out a small baggie that appeared to be filled with stamps. Red pulled out a single stamp and handed it to John.
“Mickey Mouse? I didn’t know they put Mickey on a stamp!” John grinned bemusedly, a girly, naive grin that often made the girls back home swoon. The Captain and Red exchanged another glance and each suppressed a giggle. They watched as John licked the back of Mickey Mouse and carefully attached the stamp to the corner of the envelope. He let out a contended sigh, knowing that eventually his girl would get the letter and know that he was safe.
John leaned back on a pile of dirty clothes and closed his eyes. The night wind rustled his hair and his hand reflexively went up to pat down the strays. As his fingers went through his hair, he felt a strange sensation. It was as if his hair had this depth, this texture, he never knew before. The nerve endings on his fingers had become ultra sensitive and he explored his hair as if it were the deep jungle of Viet Nam.
He then noticed other strange sensations. There was a metallic taste in his mouth and his tongue seemed to be vibrating. His arms and legs tingled with something not unlike ecstacy. He was at first unnerved by this, but then relaxed and enjoyed it as Grace Slick’s voice flowed out of the small radio’s speakers and into his ears. It ran through his veins and his blood. Grace Slick was inside him, singing! “Yes, I want somebody to love!”
“John?” Red was looking at him, and John swore there was a twinkle in Red’s eye. “You ok, John?”
“Man, I never felt better. I feel….groovy!”
Red laughed and the sound of the laughter echoed in John’s brains, sounding his own private laugh track to this crazy night.
As John looked up at Red, he notices small, white spots swirling in the air around him. The more he stared, the bigger and thicker the white spots became.
“Red! It’s snowing! It’s snowing!” John laughed giddily and stood up to try and catch the snowflakes in his mouth. As he danced around with his mouth open and tongue hanging out, his boat mates gathered around to watch.
“It’s snowing!” He yelled again. “It must be Christmas!”
Red encouraged John’s trippy fantasy. “Yea, it’s Christmas, Johnny. Tell Santa what you want!”
“Oh, I want a pony! I want a pony! And I’m going to name him Bongo!” John, for the first time in his life, felt sheer joy and he began to cry as he became overwhelmed by happiness. As he spun around in his child like dance, he caught a glimpse of something off the side of the boat. “Is that an island? Is that Santa’s magical island?” His thoughts became wild and disjointed.
Again, Red prodded John. “Yea, Santa’s over there and he’s got your pony, John.”
John squealed with delight. “I’m gonna get a pony for Christmas!” Without hesitation, he stepped off the side of the boat into the water.
“Ohh…it’s wet here. Why is it wet?” His boat mates said not a word and John could still hear Grace Slick in the distance.
And if you go chasing rabbits, And you know you’re going to fall..
And it all made sense to John. Treading water, he yelled to his boat mates, “It’s my tears! My tears of joy made a river so I can swim to Santa and my pony!” And he began to doggy paddle furiously towards the island.
When he reached shore, he was soaked and out of breath. He wanted to sit down and rest, but the thought of Bongo made him push on. John swatted huge branches out of his way as he followed what he thought was a nearly hidden path. Eventually, he came to a clearing. In the middle of the clearing was a small, square hut. Santa’s house!
“Bongo! I’m coming! I’m almost there!” Exhausted, John fell to the ground. But he did not give up. He began to crawl on his belly, a snake like crawl that might have looked stealthy and dangerous if someone else were doing it. But this was a wild-eyed, soaking wet kid who was yelling out BONGO! every three seconds and the island natives who had been watching him could do nothing but break out in laughter.
Finally, one of the natives, a short, heavy set woman in a straw hat, walked over to him and grabbed his arm.
“Get up. Get up like man. Walk.”
Aware of the villagers for the first time, John looked around in wonder. All these short, brown people! And all wearing funny clothes and hats.
“Santa’s elves,” he whispered with wonder. He stood up, brushed himself off and hugged the little woman by his side. “Where’s Bongo?” he asked. “Where’s my pony?” The woman looked towards the other villagers and shrugged. They all shrugged in response. No one knew what this American whack job was talking about.
A village man, much taller than the others and much whiter, stepped out from the hut then. He sauntered over towards John and whispered to the woman holding John’s arm “Bad trip.” The woman nodded knowingly and pushed John towards the tall, white man.
“Santa is gonna give me a pony for Christmas. Where is he? Where’s Santa? Where’s Bongo?” John was whining a bit and this irritated the man.
“Yea, you’ll get your pony. In a few minutes. First things first.” Then the man began to pat John down, feeling his shirt, his pants, his boots. He even patted him on the ass. John giggled. The man turned towards the villagers. “He’s ok.” The villagers went back to doing whatever they were doing before this strange American crawled into their lives.
“Follow me.” The man spoke with authority. John followed.
They entered the hut and the man pointed John towards a table laden with food. John assumed it must be Santa’s Christmas feast. He sat down and waited for his host to summon Santa and Bongo for him. As he waited, he played with his food, feeling the fine textures of the exotic vegetables, examining them as if they were archeological artifacts.
The villagers entered the hut then, and it became obvious to John that these were not ordinary Santa’s helpers, but his closest confidantes and helpmates. They whispered to the tall man as they cleared dirty plates off the table and replaced them with platters of desserts. John began to wonder if the tall man was not Santa himself, perhaps down a few pounds after all that world traveling. Finally, John became impatient.
“Bongo?” He looked expectantly at the man, whose face – in John’s mind – was contorting at a rapid speed in time to the music that played in the hut.
The man became angry.
“What is it with this Bongo shit? I thought the code word was calliope? You keep saying Bongo!”
John stared blankly. “Bongo. Hehe. Bongo is a funny word. But it’s a good name for a pony, right, Santa?”
“Santa? What the hell? This guy is crazy!” He yelled to the short, heavy woman. “Get him out of here, now! I don’t need this shit. My god, you try get one fucking covert operation going and they screw it up by sending me a hippie. Just once, I’d like things to go right.”
The woman came to the table and grasped John’s elbows to lift him up. She was surprisingly strong. And John was surprisingly slack.
“Hey, American psycho. Up! The blue bus is calling you!”
“Ohh…the blue bus is calling us. We better get on.”
“No we. You. Move.” The lady kicked the chair and John ended up on the floor. He began to cry.
“Santa, you are mean! You promised me a pony. I want Bongo!” He banged his fists on the floor and kicked his legs up and down. The tall, white man whispered something to the short woman and she scurried off into an adjacent room.
“Hang on, hippie. Santa won’t let you go back empty handed.”
The tall man was amused with himself. He very rarely made light of anything, but this was too good to pass up. John, oblivious to the man’s sarcastic tone, stood up and embraced the man awkwardly. “I love you, Santa.”
“Yea. A word of advice, kid. Don’t eat the yellow acid.”
“Ok, will do, Santa.”
Soon, the woman came out of the other room. John was distressed to see she was not accompanied by a pony. In her hand was a hat.
“Here. Take this. It belong to my boss. He say have it. Now get lost, hippie.”
John took the hat and ran his hands over the thick material. He wondered why the lady was giving him a hat. And then his mind cleared just a bit and he figured it all out.
“BONGO!” He let out a wail of distress that stopped the jungle animals in their tracks. “BONGO! What have they done to you, Bongo?” Great, heaving sobs came from somewhere deep inside John, from a place he didn’t even know existed. The sadness and despair he felt were unlike anything he experienced before. The woman was shoving him out the door as he cried and moaned and stroked the hat.
“Oh, tears, carry me away again. I came here on tears of happiness and I leave on tears of sadness. How poetic!” With this, he walked into the water, the hat held aloft so it wouldn’t get wet.
His boat was still right where he left it. Red was standing at the helm of the boat, eyeing John with pity. He threw him a life raft and dragged the sorry, exhausted soldier on board.
Red eyed him suspiciously. “Dude, what’s with the hat?”
“It’s not a hat, it’s my pony.”
Red chuckled. “You’ll be coming down soon, my man.”
“Coming down from what?”
“Ah, never mind.”
John fell asleep on the same pile of laundry he started this crazy trip on. Red silently pulled the hat out of John’s hand and examined it.
“My friend went to Cambodia and all he got was this lousy hat.” He snickered to himself and put the hat back in John’s hands.