Blessed with great hearing and strong night vision, Army draftee Lance Grebner was often assigned duty on night watch for his company in the Vietnamese central highlands during his tour in 1968-69. His story about how he became a go-to guy on the starlight scope brought up some Naval and academic memories for me before it took a turn way beyond my field of vision—down a path not fit for sensitive readers.
We talk about everything from cooking excellent tamales to predictions on when the first people will land on Mars during our biweekly meetings to work on Lance’s portrait. (My partner in portraiture, Christopher Wagner, mentions some of the topics here.) We also chat through a free-association mix of politics, Oregon outdoor adventures, and details about our early adulthood, which for Chris are colored by his early plans to be a preacher. For Lance and me, those stories often have a military hue—mine the color of an aircraft carrier at sea, and his the color of long mountain marches.
Lance’s company spent much of the daylight combing the craggy mountains for signs of a massive tunnel system rumored to house an underground combat hospital for the North Vietnamese Army. At night the NVA and Viet Cong came out of the tunnels, which brought about a stealthy cat-and-mouse game of ambushes and counter-attacks. Much of the American company would spend the night roving around setting up ambushes in the brush. But with his good nighttime reputation, Lance didn’t have to do a lot of that. Instead he was able to enjoy setting aside his bulky M-60 machine gun to take his turn with a smaller rifle and a startlight scope, looking at the rustling nighttime through it: two hours on, two off, until dawn.
I’ve never seen the shadowy world through a 1960s-era startlight scope, but in my Naval aviation role a decade ago I saw through similar military equipment. As Lance spoke about lying in wait on a hill, panning back and forth while looking through that round scope, I remembered Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Starlight Scope Myopia.”
A well regarded poet of the Civil Rights era, Komunyakaa received a Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam the same year (1969) that Lance earned his. It took Komunyakaa fourteen years to write about the war, finally publishing a book on it in the 1980s called Dien Cai Dau, which is Vietnamese for “crazy.” I know this thanks to background research related to my dissertation on combat art in Iraq. (Brian Turner, a rare breed who did a Master of Fine Arts in poetry before enlisting in the Army and serving in Iraq, has published some poems that make some Komunyak-esque moves.)
I told Lance about the poem with some enthusiasm, extolling what I take to be its effective meditation on the scope’s tendency to pull the shooter-viewer into this round, monochromatic world—a unique kind of near-sightedness. Komunyakaa closes “Starlight Scope Myopia” this way, refining—I said with scholarly authority—the distance between shooter and target:
One of them is laughing.
You want to place a finger
to his lips & say “shhhh.”
You try reading ghost-talk
on their lips. They say
“up-up we go,” lifting as one.
This one, old, bowlegged,
you feel you could reach out
& take him into your arms. You
peer down the sights of your M-16
seeing the full moon
loaded on an oxcart.
The poem ends like that, with this strangely beautiful image of the moon on an ox cart. We pause on the shadowy, quiet, mystical scene available through spotting scopes and explore how the sight of moving mouths can mingle with a viewer’s imagination and other night sounds into the illusion that we can hear the far-off people speaking. And Komunyakaa’s “you” adds an important, menacing layer. With “you,” he leads readers to imagine ourselves in the role of shooter instead of him. The power inherent in a rifle with night scope becomes yours. You think you know the men represented in this monochrome, shadowy text. You feel you can embrace them, and you can kill them.
I made sure to give Lance a copy of the poem in an anthology, hoping for more opportunities to talk about the optical strangeness in those situations. I’m a painter. I think about these things all the time. What I don’t think about much—and here’s an example of my own myopic view of combat scopes and luminance—is the memories someone like Lance must have entwined with those of the full moon apparently loaded onto an oxcart. They aren’t pleasant memories.
Lance earned his reputation for good starlight scoping this way: One night, on watch with his platoon sergeant, Lance whispered that he saw a figure appear in the scope, and then he started counting… 2, 3, 4, 5. “When I got to 8,” he told me, “I said, holy sh** there’s a company of NVA down there. I saw a mortar tube. It was very scary.” He said it turned out there were 200 troops on their way to take out another American company that the North Vietnamese had located earlier.
So Lance and his sergeant immediately sent word to their company to wake everyone up. He said within a minute they lit up those ghostly shapes with everything they had. Lance set aside the M-16 with the starlight scope and picked up his usual M-60 machine gun. The barrel got so hot he worried it might melt.
In the morning they found no bodies and no weapons among the helmets and other equipment scattered around. The North Vietnamese rarely left any men or weapons behind. “And there were a lot of blood trails,” he said. But later, following those blood trails, the company found several shallow graves. The NVA often would put maps or other sensitive intelligence material under a rotting body to keep anyone from discovering it, guessing that pure revulsion would keep people away from valuable intel. “But we had orders,” Lance said. They turned over those bodies—careful to avoid any booby traps—and searched the whole scene thoroughly.
One grave appeared unusual. The man’s body was buried with some formality, in a wooden box instead of a simple hole in the ground. The Americans suspected the man must have been some kind of high ranking official. Opening the box revealed something big, yet not quite what they expected. It was obvious the man had still been alive when he was buried, Lance said. The tips of the fingers had rubbed away from scratching at the coffin’s insides, and the man’s face was still twisted in what looked like a ghastly scream.
Conversations like this one give me some glimpse at the narrow scope I’m looking through almost all the time. I hope talking about it 45 years later somehow helps Mr. Grebner, too.
“Between Here and There” is a two-media portrait project that I and Christopher Wagner will be brushing and carving into until we show the portraits in November at Good Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The series is funded through a generous grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.