Friday, March 06, 2009

Humping the Boonies

I once posted a list of the ten strangest things I have ever seen and quickly noticed three had occurred in Vietnam. It made me think of something else that happened in Nam that was not so much strange as it was surreal.

I was an infantry machine-gunner in the First Cavalry. I don’t know exactly where I was except that it was somewhere near the Cambodian border. My company was on patrol from either Firebase Betty or Firebase Dragon Fire. I can’t remember which. The terrain was hilly and covered with thick, triple-canopy jungle. I was in Charlie Company, 1/8 Cavalry. The year was 1970.

There were a hundred men in my company and we usually hiked about a kilometer every day. This doesn’t sound like much but the temperature was always well over a hundred degrees and every man carried about a hundred pounds of food, water, ammunition and assorted paraphernalia on his back. We humped single-file, cutting our own trail through the jungle because Charlie’s trail was usually booby-trapped or an ambush waiting to happen.

We usually got an early start and made camp long before dark. The Captain would then send out a patrol or two to check out our surroundings. The day I remember, we got a very late start and were moving slowly because of the jungle’s thickness. It was late, deep shadows beginning to form beneath the green roof of vegetation that kept out most of the light at any time of day. At night, it was black as a cave.

I was walking near the rear of the single-file line. I had already stepped over a dead boa constrictor that the point man had encountered and chopped up with his machete. The man in front of me also pointed out several small green snakes hanging from the vegetation.

"Three step snakes," he said. "They bite you, you take three steps and you’re dead."

It was then I followed the trail around a slight bend and saw perhaps the strangest and most frightening thing I had ever seen. It was a 2000 pound bomb, stuck nose-first into rich jungle loam. A 2000 pound bomb is enormous and oh so deadly. No one could have carried it into the jungle. It had fallen from a plane and failed to detonate.

My heart was already racing from seeing the snakes but the sight of the bomb almost caused it to seize. Every man in the line passed the bomb with reverence, as if it were an angry god – the god of war, probably. Charlie sometimes found such bombs and wired them to explode when soldiers walked past. The thought crossed my mind during the ten minutes it took to pass from its sight.

The power of that image has stuck with me now for many years and reminds me of a scene from the Planet of the Apes series. Apes have taken over the earth, the human survivors of a nuclear holocaust living in caves. During a very surreal religious ceremony, they each reveal their horrible deformities as they worship an unexploded hydrogen bomb. The remaining humans revered the bomb for the awe it imbued. After skirting a smaller but no less frightening explosive weapon in the sweltering heat of a Vietnam jungle, I understand how they felt.


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