A boy discovers the complexities of conflict in this fast-paced and thoughtful look at the Vietnam War from the acclaimed author of Soldier Boys and Missing in Action.
Rick Ward wants to go to war.
And he’s not sure why. Maybe he’s running from his dad and his crazy temper. Maybe he’s running from his girl, who seems to think he’s more of a joke than a man. Or maybe he’s just running—to find himself.
After basic training, Rick enlists with the Charlie Rangers, a special unit that ambushes the enemy in secret jungle raids. It is the most dangerous front line duty, and Rick’s six-man team will experience everything from horrifying enemy encounters to mourning the death of a comrade.
Rick will discover that no one—not protestors, politicians, or writers—has got a clue. And he will see that war is far bigger, scarier, and more complicated than anything he ever could have imagined.
About the Author
Dean Hughes is the author of more than eighty books for young readers, including the popular sports series Angel Park All-Stars, the Scrappers series, the Nutty series, the widely acclaimed companion novels Family Pose and Team Picture, Search and Destroy, and Four-Four-Two. His novel Soldier Boys was selected for the 2001 New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age list. Dean Hughes and his wife, Kathleen, have three children and nine grandchildren. They live in Midway, Utah.
Read an Excerpt
Search and Destroy
RICK WANTED TO WIN. HE watched as the volleyball floated over the net and dropped toward the sand. A teammate in the middle got low and dug the ball, and then Renny set it, very high. Rick loped forward, leaped, then spiked the ball hard with his palm. But he’d mistimed his jump and didn’t get over the top of the ball. It shot toward a player on the backline, but the guy jumped aside and let it go. The ball hit beyond the line and all the players on that side of the net cheered.
“That’s all right!” he shouted. “You got us that time, but it won’t happen again.”
“Rick!” Judy was walking toward him. “I told you, I have to go,” she said.
“Can’t you just wait for one more game?”
“No! That’s what you said after the last one.”
Rick turned to Renny. “Sorry, man. Gotta run.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Renny grinned. “We’re better off without you.”
“Hey, what are you talking about? I’m your star.” Rick gave Renny a fake slam across the chest with his forearm. Renny, who was about four inches shorter than Rick and not as strongly built, acted as though he’d taken a real blow. He stumbled backward, letting his arms fly out, like some sort of clown.
“Okay, maybe you don’t care if I leave, but what about all these girls longing to gaze at my bronzed physique?” Rick struck a muscleman pose, and Jill Rush laughed appreciatively, then pretended to pant, like a dog.
“Or maybe it’s your empty head they like the most,” Judy said.
The words had a little too much edge. Rick started to say something, but Judy was already walking away. “Please, Rick. Come on.” She didn’t even look back.
“Okay, okay.” Rick ran across the beach to the spot where he’d left his bag and pulled on his shorts. His boat shoes were full of sand, but he worked his feet into them anyway and ran to catch up with Judy. She’d told him from the beginning that she couldn’t stay at the party long. But lately it seemed she was making far too many cracks like the one about his empty head. Actually, Rick thought he was smarter than Judy. True, she got better grades than he did, but she studied night and day. He’d never killed himself on his school work. Still, he read a lot more than she did. Of course, Rick had to admit, she was going places and he wasn’t. The two had graduated a couple of weeks before from Millikan High in Long Beach, California, class of 1969. In the fall Judy would be heading to Cal, Berkeley, which was more than Rick could say he was doing. Rick wanted to get away from home too, but he hadn’t yet figured out how he was going to do it.
Judy got into the car before Rick could open the door for her, so Rick walked around to the driver’s side and tossed his bag on the backseat. He’d worked hard the summer before to buy a ‘57 Chevy, a two-tone job in turquoise and white. It was his dream car, but it was also falling apart, and he didn’t have the money to do much about it. He was working again this summer, making three bucks an hour carrying hod for a bricklayer. At that rate he would bring in a lot of money, but he knew he couldn’t put it all into his car if he wanted to go to college in the fall.
“Hey, what’s with you lately?” he asked. He felt around in his pockets and realized his keys were in the bag in the backseat.
“What’s with you lately? I can’t believe how serious you are about volleyball.”
“Hey, if I’m going to play, I might as well play to win.”
She let her eyes roll and then looked away.
“Come on, Judy. What’s the matter? You treated people like garbage today. Are you in a bad mood again or—”
“I’m tired, Rick. We’re out of high school and none of your friends act like it.”
She was so serious. Judy had an easy smile and soft lips, perfect teeth, but lately she’d stopped wearing makeup, even lipstick, and she hardly seemed to smile anymore. She had started looking like a hippie, with her bell-bottom jeans and her peace beads. The thing was, Judy could look beautiful when she wanted to. So why didn’t she want to?
Rick started his car and the radio blasted out Marvin Gaye singing, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” It was a song he loved, but he turned the radio down. Judy had started listening to nothing but folk music and protest songs. That was all she seemed to care about anymore.
“Listen, Judy. My friends may like to have a good time, but they’re not stupid. They’re planning to go to college—most of them, anyway.”
“Junior college, if they get that far.”
“Oh, okay. And you got into Berkeley, so all of a sudden you’re too high and mighty to hang out with them.”
“Shut up, okay?”
“Why should I? You know it’s true. You think you’re better than everyone else.”
“No, I don’t. What I’m doing—or at least trying to do—is grow up. But you—it looks like your only goal is to be as tan as possible and win stupid volleyball games.”
Rick didn’t know how to respond to that. Didn’t she know he was kidding around? When had she lost her sense of humor? He drove for a time before he said, “Look, it’s summer. I just want to have fun for a few more months. Then I’m going to . . . you know . . . get going on my goals.”
“What goals? You didn’t even apply to college. You say you want to be a writer, but you don’t write anything.”
Rick felt stung. “I do write.”
“Yeah, in your notebook. Show me one thing you’ve finished. Even a short story.”
“I’ve finished stories before.”
“Only in your creative writing class—because you had to get something in for a grade. You’ve never written anything if you didn’t have to.” She had begun to turn the knob on the radio, probably looking for some of that stupid music of hers. If he’d done that in her car—her dad’s car, actually—she’d have told him to stop it. Why did he put up with her, anyway? Maybe it was time to break up once and for all. They’d done it several times before, but they’d always ended up back together. The thing was, he could talk to her more easily than anyone he’d ever known. There had been a time when the two of them had talked whole nights away, just trying to figure out the world. But she’d changed.
“I write more than you know about,” Rick said, weakly.
“Do you? Do you really?” When he didn’t answer, she said, “I don’t know who you are anymore, Rick. You’ve got about ten different people inside you and I only like one of them. I don’t know why I end up with the other nine most of the time.”
“What are you talking about?”
“When you’re around Renny, it’s like you never left junior high. He’s about as deep as an oil slick.”
“He likes to have fun, Judy. Fun, remember? It’s something you had a slight feel for at one time—before you decided you knew everything.”
“See, that’s the other thing. You and I both know what’s wrong with the world, but you pull back. And then you accuse me of being too serious. You’ll talk about problems, but you won’t do anything about them.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d heard her say that. But the truth was, even though he agreed with a lot of things Judy said, he was never as sure as she was. It wasn’t his job to fix the world. People who knew a lot more than either he or Judy did weren’t having much luck at doing it. And what made her think she knew all the answers? “So let’s see,” he said, after a time. “Which me is the one you like?”
“I’m forgetting. Very fast.”
“Come on, Judy. Tell me.”
She sighed. “Oh, Rick. You know very well—or you ought to. Remember the Joan Baez concert? Remember afterward? You almost cried, talking about the way so many kids in this world have to suffer.”
He did remember that night, and he did know that side of himself. He couldn’t look at posters of starving children in Africa without feeling overwhelmed with grief. But what did she expect him to do about it?
“I love the part of you that wants to write,” Judy said, this time with some softness in her voice. “You’ve written some beautiful things. But you never finish. You don’t have any discipline.”
“That’s not true! I don’t finish because I don’t really know anything. I haven’t seen anything. I haven’t experienced anything real.”
“So that’s why you spend your life at the beach with Renny and the old high school crowd?”
“Lay off, Judy. I’m about finished with that. What I’m thinking is that I’ll take off and wander for a while. You know, just work my way around the country. Talk to people. Maybe even find a way to get to Europe or somewhere like that.” If he could convince her, maybe he could convince himself.
Judy laughed. “Rick, I’m sorry, but you’re becoming more of a joke all the time. You won’t do anything like that. You know how much you want rolled-and-pleated upholstery for this stupid car. You’ll work all summer and then spend it on stuff like that. Then you’ll take a few classes at a local college and drop out after a term or two. You’re going to end up like your dad, working at some job you hate just to put food on the table.”
Her words hurt a whole lot more than he wanted her to know. “Oh, yeah, and I guess you’ll go up to Berkeley and spend all your time being the queen of the protest movement.” He had wanted to sound superior, but the words only sounded snide.
“I will be involved in the movement. You know that. But I’m going to study, too. I’m going to law school eventually, and I’m going to fight some of the stupidity going on in this country.”
She’d finally settled on a radio station that was playing a Bob Dylan song, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Rick had heard it over and over and it made no sense to him. Of course Judy knew exactly what the song meant. It was all part of this phony thing she was doing now—trying to be angry and profound.
“Come on, Judy,” he said.” Everything is stupid to you these days.”
“No, not everything. But look. My dad has enough money to do some good in the world, but he’s always buying himself a bigger boat or a fancier car. People are starving to death and my parents don’t think a thing about spending twenty dollars each on a single meal!”
“Judy, your dad works hard for what he’s got. Give him a break.”
She jerked to face him, eyes blazing. “You don’t get it, do you? You cry about little kids in Africa, but you don’t have the faintest idea of what’s going on here at home. America has lost its soul. People think they can buy a few more things and then they’ll be happy. We consume most of the world’s goods, and what do we want? More and more toys to play with.”
Actually, he agreed with her—to some extent. But he also knew what it was like to go without, and Judy had never once experienced that. He would never tell her, but the truth was, he hadn’t applied to colleges because he didn’t have the money—not if he wanted to leave home. His dad had already put him on notice that if he wanted to go to college, he was on his own. He could stick around Long Beach and enroll at a junior college, but Judy would make fun of that, and it wasn’t what he wanted either.
He almost wished the army hadn’t gone to a lottery system this year. He’d drawn a high number and wouldn’t be drafted, but sometimes he toyed with the idea of signing up. It was a ridiculous war to get involved in, and all his friends would call him an idiot if he enlisted when he didn’t have to. But the thing was, he was curious about experiencing war. Rick was going to write, but he was going to tell real stories—ones that didn’t show off. Rick liked Hemingway, liked that he didn’t use a lot of words, and liked the brave heroes in his stories. What he really wanted was to face some hard realities, maybe some danger, and discover from that what he wanted to say. Joseph Conrad had sailed up the Congo and found the heart of darkness. Then he had told the truth. That’s what Rick wanted to do. But how could he? He hadn’t found his own truths. Hemingway didn’t make war glamorous or noble, but the guy had learned things from being close to the action.
Rick reached over and turned the radio off, just to get Dylan’s annoying voice out of his head. “Well,” he said, “I’m glad you’ve got everything figured out. It’s interesting that you care so much about helping people, but you treat my friends like dirt. I guess they’re not really people to you.”
This actually seemed to stop Judy. She was quiet for a time before she said, “I’m frustrated right now, Rick. Southern Cal is probably the most superficial place on this planet. I want to get out of here, and I want to work with people who care about our world. Our friends here are nice. I just have no patience with the way they want to live. But you’re different, Rick. You have a good heart. You think. You could use your heart and brain and get involved, but you choose not to, and it makes me crazy.”
Rick was finally sick of Judy’s condescension. “Well . . . sorry I’m not what you had in mind,” he said.
“I’m sorry too, Rick. I really am.”
“But don’t call you. You’ll call me. Right?”
“There won’t be any calls. I can’t do this anymore.”
So he drove her home. He stopped in front of her house and looked at her. “Good-bye, Judith. It’s been wonderful talking to you, but I think I’ve heard enough.”
She stared at him for a few seconds and then she laughed. “You are a joke.” She got out of the car and slammed the door. There were tears in her eyes, which surprised him.
He shifted into gear, but he didn’t release the clutch. He sat for a time, trying to think what he felt. What he wished was that he could hurt—really hurt. He wanted to feel like Henry, from A Farewell to Arms, destroyed by the loss of Catherine, the nurse he loved. He wanted to be overwhelmed with emotion, then go home and write all night.
It crossed his mind that he could go back to the beach and hang out with Renny for a while longer, just to feel a little better. But that was pointless—as pointless as calling Jill Rush, who had looked so good in her two-piece swimsuit today. The girl had flirted with him so obviously that he knew she was interested. She had no brains at all, but he wasn’t sure he cared about that.
He drove home instead and then slipped off to his bedroom in the back part of the house. He sat for a time and listened to the radio. To his station. First he listened to Jimi Hendrix with the sound on so loud that he knew he would get a knock on his door pretty soon. Then Dionne Warwick sang “This Girl’s in Love with You,” and he found himself fighting not to cry. He was twenty different guys, not ten, and he wasn’t sure he liked any of them. He switched the radio to a jazz station playing a Thelonious Monk tune, turned the sound low, and got out his notebook.
Judy dumped me tonight. I don’t blame her. She’s right about me. I’m a mess. I’m just drifting. I want to leave home, but I don’t dare do it. For one thing, I don’t know what Mom and Roxie would do. I feel like I need to be here to protect them. Mom’s whole life is just serving my dad. She gets scared if everything isn’t exactly the way he wants it. If I’m not here, he might start beating on her. And what would that do to Roxie? She’s only twelve. But I can’t be the one Mom leans on forever, and I’m tired of all the yelling around this place.
I wish Judy hadn’t changed. She’s the only person I ever felt really close to. I love who she was, and I hate who she is now. But I guess she feels the same way about me. I understand what she’s saying about Renny and those guys. I’m getting so I can’t stand them either. What’s cool at fourteen doesn’t work at eighteen, and they don’t get that. But when I try to think what’s coming, there’s only one thing I know for sure: I’ve got to go to work in the morning, and I hate my job. That’s about as far ahead as I can see. Maybe I’ll end up like my dad, like Judy says I will. Maybe I’ll never have the guts to break away.
In some ways, though, Judy doesn’t understand me at all. I know I’m sort of marking time right now, but I’m not lazy. I just don’t know what to write yet. I read Salinger, and I know he knows things. He doesn’t have to spell it out; I feel it between all the lines. And Hemingway, he hurt so bad, he just let the pain come out, and that made him a writer. I don’t want pain for its own sake; I’m not like that. But I don’t feel enough, and I’ve got to find a way to do that on a deeper level. Then I’ll write stuff that will blow Judy away.
But then I wonder: What if I actually have no talent? What if I’m just kidding myself? Maybe I’m more like Renny than I want to admit. The worst part is, I don’t know. I never seem to know anything for sure.
Rick sat for a time and thought. What else did he want to say? He read back what he’d written and felt like an idiot.
This stuff is all such high school garbage. I hate it when I feel sorry for myself. I’m going to do something with my life. And then I’m going to go look up Judy and ask her what she ever accomplished with all her causes. When I publish my first novel, I’m going to send her a copy. I’ll sign it “With love, from the guy you didn’t believe in.”