In August, 1967 the war in Vietnam raged. In I Corps, Marines died all along the DMZ. But in Bravo Company…..rain. Floods gushing down the trenches. Rebuilding the bunkers on Hill 861. Digging drains for the trenchlines and installing fifty-five gallon oil drums with their tops and bottoms cut out. Places for the floods to charge down the hill and gouge out blood red creases in the hillside. Trying to burn the trash dump….hazardous duty. Five gallons of gas, five gallons of diesel fuel. Damp matches from the inside of your damp jungle utilities. Damp skin. Fingers ridged with white wrinkles. One match out of ten ignites. When you manage to get the fire into the dump it erupts with a searing whoosh that knocks you off your feet. Sears your eyelashes, your eyebrows. An unforeseen consequence of war.
Patrols. No enemy. Boredom. Ambushes, listening posts. No enemy. Boredom. Dig dig dig, rain rain, mud, wet feet, wet skin. No enemy. Boredom. Fearless B. dancing on top of the machine gunner’s bunker as he yells expletives at the non-existent enemy. He flaps his arms like a goony bird. We stand wet watches in the knee-deep water…at night. Marines go to sleep on watch. A court martial offense. “In the old Corps,” the old salts say, “they’d have summarily shot you in the head. As you slept. You are putting everybody in danger.” We go to sleep on watch. A slap on the helmet instead of a court martial. The harsh tap of a .45 caliber pistol barrel on the top of your helmet instead of a .45 caliber slug in your temple. Bored.
Down off the north side and along the Song Rao Quan as it cuts a deeper valley. Hints of cigarette smoke that doesn’t smell like ours. Cold c-rats as we get excited and hunt something to shoot. Anyone not on our side. Who’s out there. Nothing. Stale scent of unfamiliar tobacco…that’s all.
At night, again, reports of probes and a Marine tosses a grenade that sounds like a dull whump as it explodes in the head-high jungle grass. We go on alert as the frogs click and the crickets click and we click the safeties of our M-16s. Nothing but the moon on the south horizon and the breezes whispering over the wet sandbags that build our bunkers. The one night all month we are not choked by fog. We whisper to the man on the next post about all the girls we laid before becoming Jarheads. We lie. Nothing. We go back to sleep.
Someone rolls a smoke grenade down the steps into the Lieutenant’s hooch. He stomps sputtering and cussing up the stairwell and gets tripped as he lurches into the foggy black of night. Yellow smoke mixes with mist. He splays on his face and gets kicked in the ass. Jungle boots retreat in the mud amid laughter. The next morning he tries to track his attackers but the steady rain has jumbled the waffle prints of the boots. We all snigger as we hide our dirty faces in our dirty dungaree jackets.
One night a patrol out through the gate on the trail to 881 South. It is so dark you can barely see the man standing next to you. Mist drips off the end of your nose, your weapon, your trousers are damp. The jingle of dog tags and the creak of web gear. The crack and snap of rounds being chambered in M-16s. Somewhere a cigarette lighter clangs. The acrid scent of Marlboros assaults your nose. The nip of it feels right on your tongue. You tote a Browning 12-gauge. Out the gate and into a bamboo thicket so dense it chokes all the air out of your lungs. Vertigo, vertigo. You don’t know what’s out in front. Death breathes a deep sigh that tingles the bones in your spine. Cobras, out there, Charlie. Death. The dredge of boots through the sloppy red mud. Out the other side into a dark less dark. Grayer than the black that invaded your soul and left you lost for the twenty-five paces you had to act brave. Back in the bamboo thicket.
Out here, no sign of Charlie. Nothing.