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Bugs In a Box

By William N. Wells

In the central highlands of South Vietnam a few clicks north of Pleiku is a hill, the top of which during my time in-country in 1968 was occupied by an American engineering battalion and a communications station. This hill I called home for a year was surrounded by forest…and rings of barbed wire studded with Claymore mines, guard towers, and machine gun nests.

These defenses were pretty effective in keeping Charley out and us in, but were of little use in keeping out anything smaller than a house cat. During certain times of the year, the visitors that came unimpeded through the barbed wire included enormous rhinoceros beetles.

In North America, we are not used to encountering insects as big as mice, but some of these tropical critters were three or four inches long. Rhinoceros beetle were formidable creatures, looking much like their namesake with multiple horns on their heads and an exoskeleton which was no doubt effective in fending off adversaries of their own fighting weight.

But not us. Despite twelve-hour shifts seven days a week plus guard duty, the days dragged on, we were young, and in the world in which we found ourselves, entertainment and compassion were in short supply.

One evening during rhinoceros beetle season, it occurred to one of our number to cut a large rectangular hole in the lid of a shoebox and tape clear plastic across the hole to form a window. He and his friends then walked around the compound, enlisting unsuspecting rhinoceros beetles for the evening’s entertainment. To their startled insect eyes, in our helmets and flak jackets we must have seemed the biggest bugs they had ever seen.

Dozens of unfortunate beetles whose numbers came up that evening were marshaled together and deposited into the box, enough beetles almost to fill it. Their captors then placed the lid onto the box of wriggling beetles, taped it shut, and gathered around to peer into the window and watch what happened next.

What we didn’t expect was the roar that issued from the sealed box, audible all the way across the compound, as the beetles fought and clambered over each over in a Black Hole of Calcutta recreated just for them,

Entranced, mesmerized, we watched the churning mass of insects through the window as the roaring continued for what seemed like hours. As for what we saw through that window, imagine a glimpse into Hell through the glass door of a front-loading washing machine.

Eventually, the roar emitting from the box began to subside as the captive beetles slew each other and exhausted themselves. And eventually, their captors untaped the lid and unceremoniously dumped the contents of the box onto the ground. Truth be told, there wasn’t much left to liberate.

The pile on the ground consisted of numerous dead beetles, hundreds of body parts, and a few luckless survivors, lurching unsteadily away on whatever limbs remained attached to them.  No bug medics appeared to carry them away to safety. No bug VA representatives showed up to hand them forms to attempt to fill out with whatever appendages they had left.

No widows or offspring came forward to claim the remains, honor the dead and give them a proper burial.

You would think that there would be some kinship and solidarity among fighting bugs, even across species. But no…for we were young, and in the world in which we found ourselves, entertainment and compassion were in short supply.

We big bugs (those of us who stayed out of kill boxes, anyway) eventually laid aside our own armor and returned to the North American nests from whence we came. As the years rolled by, we hooked up with lady bugs and did our buggy things. One of us even wrote a story about the little bugs. He hates to break it to you, little fellas, but this brief story is likely to be as much immortality as you guys will ever get.

Sorry about that.

Bill Wells spent four years in the Army and a year in Vietnam between 1966 and 1970. His father flew in B-17s over Germany during World War II and a nephew recently returned from a tour in Iraq in the Army, so encounters with military service seem to run in the family. Currently a software engineer in Bethesda, Maryland, Bill writes when he can, which isn’t nearly as often as he would like.

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