A Night in the Delta
by George Thorne
The jeep idles along in second gear, tires soundless in the sandy rutted track. Momentum slows as the driver silently eases the clutch pedal to the steel floorboard, gliding the jeep to a coasting halt beside a chest high pile of sandbags. Before the jeep has completely stopped Carl swings both legs over the side and eases to the ground. Reaching into the cargo space behind the seat, he grabs his helmet and flak jacket. He is barely able to get his gear squared away, when like a ghost, the jeep slides away silently in first gear, the little four cylinder engine barely noticeable in the fading twilight of the paddy fields and jungle of the Mekong Delta.
No words were spoken between Carl and the man behind the steering wheel. Carl knew that just like last night, and the night before, the jeep will creep back through the dawn mist and carry him back to the canvas oven of his hooch, where he will lie on his sweat-soaked cot, hoping for a few precious hours of sleep to come. Not really sound sleep, which his body cries out for, but the restless troubled dozing that masquerades as sleeping in Viet Nam. Hopefully it will be enough to get him through another night. A night where the minutes stretch into hours, and he will again fight the never ceasing numbness of beyond tired.
Stand down they call it, a few days of supposed light duty from the daily drudgery and peril of plodding countless jungle paths. Carl foolishly almost looks forward to going back to the boonies next week, to the waiting VC and NVA. Anything would be better than this monotonous grind of perimeter guard at base camp and the never ending list of petty chores demanded of him by lifer sergeants in clean jungle fatigues, headquarters NCOs who had never spent one night in the jungle.
Crawling through a low portal into the sandbagged bunker, Carl was surrounded by the darkness that filled the cramped cave. Waiting for his pupils to dilate and his night vision to return, he inhaled the dank, musty staleness of the muggy night. He sensed, more than heard, the swift scurrying of a rat along the dirt floor, and kicked frantically where he guessed it to be.
Instantly his mind flashed back to rats silently crawling along the barn beams, beady eyes staring, as ten-year-old Carl hunches over his milking stool in the dim glow of lantern light, the cows blowing hot steam into a frozen Michigan night. Carl has always feared and hated rats.
Feeling a little embarrassed by his near panic over the rat, and thankful that none of his buddies are around to see him act like such a chickenshit, Carl takes a deep breath to calm his nerves and looks over the space where he will spend the next eight hours. The trash-littered floor, empty C-ration cans, crumbled crackers, and a flattened Lucky Strike cigarette pack tell the tale of a rat haven among the sandbagged walls of the bunker. Wasting no time and anxious to be out of this rat castle, Carl grabs the rope handles of a wooden box of grenades from the floor, and stooping to get back through the low door way, lugs it outside and heaves it onto the roof of the bunker. After the grenade box he tosses up his steel pot and flak jacket. Then he pitches up his rifle with two bandoleers of M-16 clips, and stumbling among loose sandbags he clambers to the roof.
As Carl busies himself rearranging a few bags to make a defensive position atop the bunker, the sky silently darkens, and distant stars, untold millions of miles away, stab pinpricks of light toward the loneliest place on Earth.
Lying flat on his stomach, wiggling into the most comfortable position he can find on the hard lumps of sand bags, Carl stares warily across the narrow strip of defoliated scrub into the menacing dark tree line that is the edge of the jungle.
As the world turns into total blackness around him he lies silently listening. Tuning his ear to the natural sounds of the night, the not so far away croak of a frog, the low buzz of mosquitoes, and the soft scurrying of a rat somewhere in the bunker below, he concentrates his mind, listening for any hints of sound not made naturally. Uneasily, in the encroaching dark cocoon of the night he tries to pick out whispering voices, the metallic rattle of equipment, or the snap of a twig, foretelling the nearness of his enemy.
Carl knows that his enemy hopes to find him asleep, wants to slice through his throat, or plunge a bayonet between his shoulder blades as he stares dumbly into the darkness.
Was that faint rustling in the high grass just the wind, too imperceptible to feel, or was it made by someone creeping barefooted toward this hiding spot atop his tiny fortress? Focusing all of his being into listening, long seconds pass and the only sound his straining ears detect is the constant soft buzzing of mosquitoes. Slowly his trepidation eases, and he convinces himself reluctantly to settle down, take it easy. It’s nothing but the wind. Just my imagination, he tells himself, bucking up his courage. He tries to erase from his mind an image of a grimacing face and a hand with a gleaming steel blade plunging toward his chest.
A faint sliver of the waning moon drifts across the sky as Carl lies listening to the still night. So far the first few hours of guard duty have been uneventful, and he has forced himself to stay awake. The low muffled rumble of outgoing artillery fire from some remote fire base has been the only intrusion of non-natural sound in the deep, black, jungle silence. Counting the outgoing rounds has given his mind a temporary diversion to help fight off his unrelenting craving for sleep, but it is not enough. He loses count as his head sags to his chest and heavy eye lids droop. The wish to just let his eyes close for a few seconds is overwhelming. How many more hours to go? he wonders. Sliding up his sleeve and squinting at the luminous dial of his watch, he quietly groans. The nearly four more hours of torture before the jeep returns seem impossible.
He shifts onto his side and stares dolefully for several minutes toward a low range of hills a couple of miles beyond the perimeter wire. His mind wanders and he remembers a trip he took when a boy to his mother’s hometown in Pennsylvania. He recalls looking out of the back seat widow of his dad’s car as this same sliver of moon floated above forested hills. The serenity of the memory eases his loneliness, he is comforted by the similarity of the scene, remembering how safe and protected he felt peering through the frosty rear window at this very same moon, as his father’s old Nash rambled through the Appalachian foothills. Those years now seem like they were from another life time, yet gazing at this ageless moon he knows that as sure as the moon will be shining down on the Pennsylvania hills tomorrow, in time Viet Nam will be nothing more than a faint memory retrieved from the deepest recesses of his mind.
A faint rustling in the brush and Carl’s pulse immediately quickens, he freezes. For long seconds he is as motionless and alert as an owl. Is it the wind again, or his imagination? He strains to listen while staring into absolute blackness. Suddenly a starburst of light erupts from the perimeter wire not fifty feet away, and for a few seconds the ground is bathed in a faint glow, as if from a giant Fourth of July sparkler, just enough light so that every bush and blade of grass casts a long eerie shadow of portending evil. Carl automatically squeezes his body as flat as an ell into the sandbags beneath him. The sudden flash of light momentarily disorients him. Regaining his senses he instantly realizes that a trip flare has been set off in the wire. His breath comes quicker and he can feel his temples begin to throb, a feeling of dread and foreboding creeps through his entire being. Flares are not set off by the wind, he knows.
Staring into the blackness with all of his might, he stealthily slides his M-16 to his shoulder and aims the muzzle toward the section of coiled barbed wire that the flare just launched from. The light is too dim to use the rifle’s sights. Instead he looks down the length of the barrel as he slips the safety selector from safe position to automatic. The index finger tip of his right hand presses down ever so slightly on the trigger, not enough to fire the round. Not yet, he tells himself, better to wait for a moment, be sure of the shot.
“Carl, never pull the trigger until you know what you are shooting at.” His father had drilled that basic hunter’s creed into him time and time again on their forays into the Michigan woods when he was a boy. “Only damned fools take sound shots!”
Frozen as if he were a chunk of granite, he holds his aim at that spot of wire as the flare fades and flickers out. Peering into the darkness, with his finger teasing the trigger, he waits for what is surely the longest minute of his life. Maybe there is an explanation for it, maybe an animal, a cat, or dog, or perhaps a rabbit has tangled up in the trip wire, setting off the flare. The more scenarios that he thinks up, the less plausible they seem. What would a cat or dog be doing out here? – and he had never seen or heard of a rabbit in Viet Nam. Yet something had set off the flare.
Facts could not be denied. He could not talk himself out of the truth: he was not alone on this stretch of perimeter wire. In his imagination the grimacing face and flashing knife reappear and his Adam’s apple catches in his throat.
He lies as motionless as a log, finger pressure on the trigger just shy of firing. Did that shape he has been staring at in the dark just move slightly, or are his eyes playing tricks in his fear? Squeeze the trigger a little more and take a shot, he tells himself. No, not yet! He instantly retracts the first thought. Don’t be stupid, he tells himself. Shooting now will give away your position. Maybe the VC won’t know where you are. If you shoot they will see the muzzle flash that will give your hiding place away. His hands are a vise on the rifle, his eyes dart from the brushy tree clump, to the tall patch of elephant grass, to hummocks of earth that all seem to have come alive. How many are there? Shoot now, fool, before they get closer! one part of his brain screams. No, not yet, wait, wait! another part warns. Maybe they are not coming in tonight. Maybe they are just probing the wire, and will come another time. Maybe it is not me that they want. Maybe they will come when someone else is on guard, another night, when I am back in Pennsylvania.
“Oh shit,” Carl mumbles as another shower of light erupts from the tangle of barbed wire. Breathing now quick and shallow, muscles tightening in his shoulders and arms, he squints along the rifle barrel as terror creeps into his soul. Is it just a lump of earth he is staring at as the flare flickers and dies, or did it just move? What was that?
The soft rustling below brings his mind to a razor’s edge of anticipation. He senses, knows beyond a doubt, that it is not the rat this time! Someone is in the bunker below him!
His mind races as he remembers what happened to the guards caught asleep at the Ben Cat River Bridge last month. How their throats were cut, and their dicks chopped off. When his platoon sergeant told about it in the hooch one night, he thought it was just a story to scare the new guys in the company, like the age old ghost stories that are told around campfires to children late on a summers night. Right now Carl knows that it was real. That it did happen, and that is was about to happen again.
What’s going on in the space below him right now? Carl’s horrified mind tried to visualize. What would Charlie think to find this bunker empty? Will he think that this guard post is truly deserted? Or is he at this second thinking about looking up on the roof for the missing American? Carl knows that it won’t take long before he is found out.
He, Carl, who had slunk away in shame countless times from school yard bullies, squirmed closer into the sandbagged roof of the bunker, praying not to be discovered, begging God to turn him into a chameleon, yet knowing it was hopeless. There would be no slinking away this time.
His hand, which seems somehow to separate from his fear-frozen body, silently reaches out for the small wooden box he knows to be somewhere in the darkness beside him.
When he was a boy on the farm it had been his chore to gather the eggs from the dark chicken coop every evening. Using the same stealthy movements that it took to steal an egg from under a sleeping hen, his outstretched fingertips brush the rough edge of the box where a dozen grenades nestle like Easter eggs in a basket. Gently his fingers close around the smooth edges of a sphere. Drawing his hand closer to his chest and letting loose of the rifle with his other hand, he fingers the small metal ring that attaches to the pin of the grenade. A thought flashes into his brain. Hold the grenade close. Pull the pin. Escape the fear.
Another idea rushes into his fear-clogged brain and pushes out the previous terrible urge. In desperation, his heart pounding so loudly he’s sure Charlie can hear it, he digs his toes into the sandbagged roof and inches forward on his belly, gripping the grenade tighter than a thief stealing a million-dollar diamond. In his mind’s eye he visualizes the firing port in the bunker’s front wall. This small opening in the sandbagged wall made for guards to look and fire out of, would be his target.
Lunging on hands and knees now, he scrambles to the edge, flopping on his belly, instantly he swings his arm over the edge of the roof and pitches the grenade.
A sledgehammer slams into his body and his ears explode. A burst of blinding whiteness engulfs his consciousness. Deaf and blind, he lays as stunned as a salmon swatted from the river by a grizzly’s paw.
He’s on his back, staring into the sky as the stars fade in and out, trying to focus and clear his head, trying to decide if he is dead or alive.
When he was nine or ten years old he had foolishly thrown a stick at a hornet’s nest that was hanging in the low branches of a tree. As he lay on his back on the bunker roof, dazed and numb, the hornets were back tormenting him. They zipped just inches over his prone body, streaks of green light flashing past, searching him out, wanting to sting him again like they had done when he was a boy playing in the woods.
His foggy mind began to clear. They’re not green hornets, he realized. Tracers, AK47 tracers, flowing in a steady stream of green from the jungle just outside the perimeter wire streaked over his face. Rolling back over, Carl found his rifle jamming into his chest. Jerking it free, he shoved the muzzle toward the spot in the wire where the green streaks were coming from, squeezed the trigger and emptied a full clip. Red tracers from his M-16 zipped toward the hornet’s nest of his tormentors.
Fumbling fingers slammed another clip into his rifle and his heart pounded as hard as the AK-47 bullets that thumped into the sand bags he crouched behind. Poking his rifle barrel over the top of the bags, he fired again in the direction of the VC, not aiming, just pointing the muzzle in the direction of the perimeter and squeezing the trigger until another clip emptied.
For an instant his mind flashed back to the swarming hornets from that long ago day in the woods. Would he be lucky again? Could the stings from these hornets that swarmed him be eased with his mother’s home remedy of baking soda and vinegar?
He knew the answer.
George Thorne is a Vietnam veteran (Army). He served in the 120th and 352nd Transportation Companies in support of infantry and artillery units in the Mekong Delta and III Corps area north of Saigon in 1968 and 1969. He was also a member of the 144th Military Police Company of the Michigan National Guard after active duty. George has earned a BS degree from Western Michigan University and a MA degree from the University of Michigan. He is currently retired from a thirty year teaching career.