Marilyn’s wind chimes are performing a chaotic symphony tonight because of an approaching storm. Their resonance reminds me of an incident that happened in Vietnam, but not because of the weather. I had the same eerie feeling - a warning from somewhere deep in the primitive portion of our brains that scientists never discuss, our animal brain that screams at us whenever something very bad is about to happen.
The mind plays tricks, even the animal part of our brains. This is particularly true when the elements rob your senses. Such is the case after darkness falls in triple-canopy jungle. I was a grunt in an infantry line company. We were somewhere near the Cambodian border. Hell! We were probably in Cambodia.
The area was hot (firefight hot) and our sister companies had all made contact with the NVA during the past days. Earlier that night we had watched and heard a B-52 attack as the big planes carpet bombed a nearby patch of jungle, hoping to disrupt Charlie’s intricate system of trails that somehow managed to keep supplying arms and supplies to their soldiers in the south.
I sat in a damp hole in the ground, my senses disrupted and seeing nothing, not even an occasional flash of light. It’s true that when you have no vision your hearing becomes more acute. I was aware of the sounds of night. A tiger stalked in the distance and I could track its progress through the jungle by the low growls it periodically emitted. I could also hear elephants and horses – yes, horses. Don’t ask me how or why they were there in the jungle but their sound is unmistakable. I also heard other things.
Helicopters supplied us every three days. After cutting a landing zone in the jungle – a small LZ barely large enough for the choppers rotors – the birds would bring us food, water and fresh ammo. They also brought us beer and pop and each of us got three beverages of our choice every three days.
You didn’t want to drink your beer immediately because everyone would beg a sip and there would be little or nothing left for you to drink when the can came back around. Most soldiers savored theirs while pulling guard duty because it was about the only time you were ever truly alone while on patrol. As I sat there, listening to the tiger, elephants and horses, I heard someone pop the top on a Black Label. Then I heard something else – the low moan of a soldier, thinking of his wife or girl as he masturbated in the darkness. I knew very well how he felt because I was thinking about doing the same thing myself.
Tension mounted as days went by without encountering Charlie. As we cut our way slowly, single file through the jungle, a signal began being passed back to the rear. The soldier in front of me pointed at a snake in the branches over our head. I didn’t know its real name, but we called it a three-step snake because that’s about how far you could go before dying if it bit you. Not far from the snake, I witnessed something as eerie as I have ever seen.
It was a thousand pound bomb lying flat on the ground amid broken jungle vegetation - a relic of a B-52 attack, a monster bomb that had not detonated but still had the stark power to blow a forty-foot hole in the ground. Everyone in the row of soldiers realized as much and to say that I was frightened would be lessening the aching fear throbbing in the pit of my gut. The bomb was longer than I am tall and even lying flat it came up to my chest. We snaked around it, no one touching it for fear that it was booby trapped by the NVA.
Fifteen days passed without encountering the enemy and I still remember climbing the incline to the firebase hewn out of a Vietnamese mountain. We were stopped at the perimeter and told the bad news that instead of our expected five day stand-down, we would be re-supplied where we stood and then sent back into the jungle for another fifteen day stint.
One of the men – a southern black man - heard his animal brain louder than the rest of us. Pulling off his pack, he sat down and refused to move. I remember our idiot Lieutenant holding a .45 to the man’s forehead, threatening to blow his brains out if he didn’t get up from where he sat. He ignored the lieutenant’s threats and military police from the firebase soon led him away at gunpoint to an inevitable stay in the Long Binh Jail. As we watched them leave, all the rest of us wondered if he wasn’t the smart one in the bunch and perhaps doing the right thing.
We stayed on the perimeter of the firebase that night, not allowed on the safer side of the razor wire. Next morning we reentered the jungle for another fifteen days. At this point, my mind numbs and my memories become blocked from the events that ensued.
Tonight, as wind whistles out my back door, distant thunder rattles the windows and lightning illuminates the western sky like a fiery B-52 attack, I get that same eerie feeling that I had so many years ago.