"Hey, G.I., you No. 1. You give me chop-chop?"
His smile covered his entire face. It was there for a moment and then disappeared behind the gunwale, only to bob up again with an eerie wave lifting his tiny sampan and dropping him out of sight like a puppet playing hide-and-seek.
I laughed out loud. I laughed so seldom these days. War takes its greatest toll on the emotions, sometimes even more than on the body. My smile was gone. His was still there, despite the fact that the war was in his backyard, front yard and living room.
My boat was manned by four of us with personal weapons, not to mention three giant .50-caliber machine guns fore and aft along with two M60s midship. A Mark 18 grenade launcher was mounted on the rear .50 caliber, and we had enough ammo to start our own war. None of these things bothered the little guy. Appearing and disappearing on the starboard side of our floating death machine.
Our hearty laughter was telltale of our exhaustion and boredom - a lethal combination in enemy territory. The rules were never to allow anyone at anytime to approach the boat uninvited. Suddenly, the realization that this innocent child could be pulling the pin on a grenade and readying it to be dropped in our boat sent us scrambling to shove him and his canoelike craft far away as quickly as possible. My leg was over the edge, kicking and shoving him to get distance between us. My foot found the sampan instantly. I gave a shove, sending the smiling boy in a forward tumble as his craft went into a spinning reverse.
His smile gave way to a look of panic. I saw the glance he gave the water; and in the split second I saw it, I wondered why his fear. Every child in these rivers in Vietnam could swim. Why his panic? Did he drop a live hand grenade into his own boat? Something was wrong, and my training demanded I expect the worst.
Like a cat, my senses and reflexes were sharp as I lunged for my twin-mounted, midship M60s. In a flash I had both guns loaded and trained on the tiny target now drifting backward slowly. I watched for the slightest threatening move. The child didn't move at all - much less threateningly. I leaned into my guns trying to see between the barrels why he remained on the bottom of his sampan. The sickening truth was about to be revealed: The reason for his forward tumble was not to retrieve a dropped grenade or to duck the bullets he was expecting me to spray him and his boat with. With painfully evident struggle, the little boy was trying to upright himself with just his thin arms. He had no legs.
At the risk of his life he paddled about in the tiny boat trying not to fall out. He tumbled forward because he had no legs to balance himself. The little guy worked till he pulled himself back onto the board upon which he sat. He pulled the dirty rags back over the stumps that extended barely 10 inches from his hips.
The boat slowly turned, allowing a long uninterrupted gaze from his dark eyes into mine. Eyes that questioned why I shoved him away. Eyes that penetrated my soul, looking into my own fears that I knew were greater than his. Eyes that wondered if the index finger I had on the trigger would show white at the knuckle as pressure would determine his fate. I watched him till the turning boat would not allow his gaze to remain. He waited now with his back to me, almost defying me to shoot. My hands relaxed. My eyes never left the boy. He waited till the drifting boat turned enough to look back again. The standoff was over when he saw me sitting.
Slowly and unthreateningly he lowered his hand to a paddle and began a slow and cautious approach to the boat. The waves still bobbed his head up and down, in and out of sight with each reappearance showing a slightly brighter face until his smile returned at full force and his voice repeated the phrase, "Hey, G.I. you No. 1. You give me chop-chop?"
I could not remember a time when the simple request for something to eat caused so much commotion. My heart was still pounding to think that anyone had accessed our boat so undetected and without fear. Then I remembered what I had just seen - which war had desensitized me to - the suffering of others.
Finding a proper response was awkward. He was hungry, but he had no legs. A little chop-chop was not even a Band-Aid to this child's plight. He needed an orthopedic surgeon, prosthetics, counseling for disabilities, a wheelchair.
No, I was wrong. He needed chop-chop, and I didn't have any on board. He needed food for his empty tummy that gnawed at his bones for sustenance. All the legs in the world could not meet his most urgent need.
Few things are more painful to see than the hungry, distorted figures of starving people who would trade a fistful of hundred dollar bills for a fistful of rice.
I searched everywhere I knew to find food, but the mission that day did not require an overnight patrol of food supplies. I happened to catch, from the corner of my eye, a reflection of light off the cellophane wrapper of a candy bar that had fallen into the engine compartment where we heated food occasionally. I grabbed it, wiped the grease off and handed it to the boy. He honestly danced with no legs. He yelped with pleasure and showed off his prize to the other kids now making a run at the boats.
We now were about to be surrounded by children with the same appeal: "Hey, G.I., you No. 1. You give me chop-chop?"
I didn't know how to accomplish the idea I had, but a thought of brilliance passed through my war-weary mind. I needed to disperse them. I didn't know how to do it other than to jump, yelling, grabbing my big guns and spinning them around and around. The kids made a mad dash for the riverbanks. I knew the need for food was bigger than the little boy with no legs. The entire village was hungry. When the crowd had gone a safe distance, I picked up a satchel charge filled with eight sticks of very explosive C4. (They are shaped like a bar of soap, about a foot long, and each one equal to a stick of dynamite.) I removed the firing mechanism from a grenade, pressed it into a satchel charge of C4, pulled the pin and threw it overboard. The charge floated for a couple of seconds, then sank only enough to ensure our survival. Its blast picked up our eight-ton boat and reversed it course.
We were yelling and laughing as I waited for something more important to occur. I watched, hoping. The water still foamed bubbles and the boat rocked while the guys on the boat celebrated our survival.
Then it happened.
My blast was right on target - a target I couldn't even see when I tossed the charge. It was just an idea and a prayer, but it worked. Thousands of fish started rising to the surface of the river...maybe millions. The river glistened with silver, shiny fish, stunned and floating belly up, Every child on the river loaded his boat to the point of sinking. Parents pushed their boats out into the river joining the children in the largest fish catch in their history. There would be no hunger tonight in the village. A huge school of fish passed under the boat at the right time for a satchel charge to be thrown on a whim for a village to eat because Jesus loves the little children - especially those with no legs.
Dave Roever is a nationally known evangelist. His organization, Roever Evangelistic Association, has an educational assistance program that provides clothing, medical care and scholarships to the children of Vietnam. He lives in Fort Worth, Texas.