‘‘Where Have You Gone Charming Billy?’’ takes place during a night march that comes at the end of Paul Berlin’s first day in the Vietnam War. The story opens with the platoon moving slowly through the dark and stopping to rest. Paul Berlin brings up the rear, and as they rest, he retreats into his own mind. He is ‘‘pretending,’’ trying to will himself to another place, a place that is not Vietnam, a place that is not at war, a place where he did not witness the death of one of his platoon members that afternoon. The soldier who died was Billy Boy Watkins. He stepped on a land mine, which amputated his foot inside his boot. The medic, Doc Peret, tried to calm his panic, but Billy Boy died. While Paul Berlin is pretending not to remember this frightening event, he comes close to falling asleep. The soldier next to him alerts Paul Berlin that they are moving and threatens to shoot him if he is suspected of sleeping.
Paul Berlin follows the soldiers, stumbling to catch up. He is very afraid, and he concentrates on the smells and sounds around him in an effort to allay his fears. His hope is that once they reach the sea, at the end of their night march, they will be safe. As they march, Paul Berlin thinks about the different kinds of fear he felt that day, from the ‘‘bundled and tight’’ fear as Billy Boy Watkins was dying, to the ‘‘diffuse and unfocused’’ fear as they were marching, to his current state, which is ‘‘fear of being so terribly afraid again.’’ In order to withstand this fear, Paul Berlin resorts to ‘‘tricks’’ such as counting his steps and thinking of songs. As he marches, counting his steps, Paul Berlin resolves to be a better soldier in the future. He will clean his gun, and remember his training, and learn how to control his ‘‘awful fear.’’
The line of soldiers stops to rest again, and once again, Paul Berlin comes close to falling asleep. The soldier next to him offers him water and a stick of gum and tells him that that ‘‘it isn’t always so bad.’’ The soldier introduces himself: His real name is Tony, but the soldiers call him Buffalo, or sometimes just Buff. They sit quietly in the dark until Buff starts to laugh a little at the thought of Billy Boy Watkins dying of fright. Paul Berlin imagines the a mock-serious telegram alerting Billy Boy’s family that he was ‘‘scared to death’’ in Vietnam. The thought makes Paul Berlin giggle.
Paul Berlin tries to control his giggling, but he cannot. He rolls onto his front, and buries his head in his arms, but he is overcome with hysterical giggling. Buff hisses at him to stop, but he cannot, because in his head he is reliving the events of the afternoon: Billy Boy’s death, and how his body fell out of the helicopter and the platoon was forced to search for it in the swampy rice paddy. Buff finally smothers Paul Berlin until he stops giggling and then helps him up, asking if he is all right. ‘‘You can get killed, laughing that way,’’ the soldier warns Paul Berlin.
The column of soldiers begins to move again, and Paul Berlin tries to count, but he cannot keep track of the numbers. He tells himself that ‘‘he feels better’’ and that ‘‘he would never be so afraid again,’’ but by the end of the story, he has to admit to himself that ‘‘he could not stop being afraid.’’
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Published by Gale Group, 2001.