Not a Cherry Anymore
Since we were new to the company, they assigned us “milk runs” for the first few weeks, to break us in. These were non-combat flights. We might fly a Colonel to Saigon, supplies to the smaller bases, or just fly as gun for test flights. On one occasion we did draw fire, but we were up in the “safe zone,” high enough in the air that any bullets fired from the ground couldn’t do much damage. Up there, we could relax, and I did. Even though I would have to clean her each day, I always made sure to test fire my weapon at least once on every flight, and if the pilots were cool about it, many times.
One of the milk runs I enjoyed was what the grunts called “Log Day!” We brought them ammunition, other supplies and mail from home. Out in the bush they carried everything they needed, about eighty pounds or more, on their backs. They had to be ready to fight at any moment while trying to manage all that weight through the thick jungle. I couldn’t have done it. Anyway, if they were out for more than a few days, important things got used up, like food and ammo, so we were always a welcome sight.
Sometimes, if we could arrange it, and only for the ones we had come to know, we would manage to have on board a couple six packs of warm beer. It was always greatly appreciated, but more prized than that was the mail from home. It was their one escape, if even for just a few minutes. Those waiting wait at home will never fully realize the impact that even a small note or card has on a soldier’s moral.
The grunts were quite fond of us. They called us “Angels from the sky” and other pretty cool names. In the jungle, to the Americans anyway, the sound of a helicopter was always good. We were either bringing mail and supplies, bringing more troops, providing air cover, coming to get their wounded or picking them up to bring them out of the jungle and back to hot food and clean clothes.
They said we had coconuts for gonads. I was pretty sure that meant we had guts and it felt pretty good to think that someone thought that of me. It was the closest thing to being looked up to, I’d seen so far, and had to be just a taste of how great things would be back home.
In reality though, it was hard to believe these guys thought my job was any worse or any more frightening than theirs. We take them out, and drop them off and we leave and go back to the base. At the end of the day we get to take a fairly warm shower, watch a movie and get ice cream from the stand.
These guys are stuck in some remote snake and bug infested and who knows what else, miserably hot jungle. They have to put up with all that before the fact there were people around them looking to kill them. They had to be on their guard against attack at all times. Even if there were no enemy nearby, it was the booby traps they left behind.
All day long they chop their way through jungle so thick you can’t see two feet ahead, in heat so bad it forms a steam like a mist over the ground, all the time carrying all that weight on their backs. They can expect to spend from one night, to maybe a week or longer patrolling the neighborhood, gathering information, avoiding those booby traps, and ambushes.
One thing they talked about scared me a lot. I paid quite a lot, in beer, to hear some of those stories back at the R&R center. One guy told me about a day he was chopping his way through thick, skin cutting jungle just a few yards away from a nice clean trail he couldn’t use, because it was most likely booby trapped.
When all of a sudden, every bush around them exploded with flashes! The noise he said was tremendous. It was total chaos. His buddies, the ones with experience, immediately hit the dirt and returned fire. He got quiet for a second then told me about a couple of them that didn’t. They hadn’t learned to react right away, and needed just a couple seconds longer to understand what was going on.
“Just two seconds!”
It meant they were quick casualties.
As quickly as it started, he said it got spooky quiet. They hit and disappeared, leaving no trace, except for one blood trait they didn’t bother following. After listening to that, I couldn’t think of anything, so far, that a chopper crew experienced, that could be any worse.
No, I didn’t envy them at all. I had no illusions to have anywhere near the extraordinary internal fortitude they must have to do what they did, and they truly deserve all the glory they will receive when they get home too, and the honor and respect for those that didn’t. My hat is off to anyone that “camped out” in Vietnam.
Anytime we came in for the landing at any small outposts, I always felt a little sorry for them, especially if we had to touch down inside the wire. Anything that wasn't securely tied down was blown all over by our rotor wash, sometimes, even if it was. We always made quite a mess. As soon the ship touched down everyone scrambled to unload as quickly as possible.
As we unloaded ammo, C-Rats, the Army version of “carry-out” with a thirty-year shelf life, I had a better chance to take a good look at them. Any other time, they were crammed inside my ship waiting to be taken who knows where. They didn’t look lost or scary-eyed to me, for the most part anyway.
There were some, but even they looked more resolved than angry. There was really not that much on the outside to make them look any different than a cowboy, or ironworker. Seeing where they slept made me thankful for my bunk, and roof, and blankets and, especially my pillow, not to mention drifting off to sleep listening to John's cool stereo.
Once, early in our probation period, we were to drop supplies into an outpost that had recently been attacked. That whole mission took on a different mood. Our pilots were more serious, not making their usual jokes. They checked, and re-checked their maps, and took extra time getting the ship fired up.
Our pilots were fresh out of flight school. Poncho, the pilot, had been in country two months, and Larry, the co-pilot or peter pilot, for only one. The C.O. put us all together to see how we got along as a team. If we worked well, when it came time to assign us to our own ship, the one in the hanger still being assembled, brand new if you didn’t catch that, we would become a team. In our company it was a practice to keep the same crews together as much as possible. There were a lot of different ways to do things up there, and it seemed to work out better that way. We had already begun to have that understanding each other, at least well enough to know if anyone was nervous, even if they didn’t show it. When they were nervous, so was I.
We picked up ammunition from our ammo dump and other supplies waiting for us near the runway, and took off. As soon as we were over V.C. Island, and before I could even ask, Poncho came over the intercom.
“You guys better test your weapons!”
Then he added.
“And check you M-16’s too!”
Each gunner also carried as a back up, the Army’s newest assault rifle. To me, it was just something else to carry down that long flight line every morning and usually stayed jammed in the corner of my seat, unloaded. It didn’t feel like a real weapon, more like a kids toy. Many grunts said they felt the same way, there wasn’t much confidence in them.
That reminded me. We had not been issued our “chicken plates” yet. It was a fiberglass vest, about one inch thick, looking like an umpires vest, nice for hunching behind to be the smallest target possible. It was supposed to be able to stop a fifty-caliber bullet at close range. I would take their word for it
There were two plates, one for the front of me and one for the back. Since there was a nice big turbine behind me, I didn’t need the back one in place, so I rigged a harness for the front one and used the back to sit on. I wanted to protect my investment.
I loaded Betsy, and racked a shell in her chamber. This time, the test fire was for a real reason. A clump of trees appeared below and I squeezed the trigger. No problems, she took right off. I listened for John’s. There it was! I could breath again. That was my responsibility over there, one of the very few real ones I actually have.
My vision blurred again, like it used to. I’m holding on too tight! Relax, let the vibrations roll off! When I calmed down some, my sight cleared back up.
I’m talking to myself trying first, to make-believe it wouldn’t be that bad where we were headed, then telling myself to somehow pull something out of my deepest inside that would make me function like I was expected to, if and when the time came. Not only did I not fully believe I had this, whatever it was in the first place, I had no idea where it would be if it was in there. I wouldn’t know until, or if it ever happened.
With each weapon I would only fire a few rounds. There might be a need, later on. Clipping Betsy back into the mount, I grabbed the sixteen. It felt so light. How could this do any damage? I wouldn’t want to be in any in any situation where this was all I had to depend on.
One of the clips, acquired in a trade with John, was a double banana clip. It was long, curved and held twice the rounds. This one, being two clips taped together in reverse, could be reloaded easily. Even with all that, it would only buy me enough time to worry about what to do next. Sixty rounds felt like nothing compared to the fifteen hundred I had for Betsy. If she appreciated all the extra cleaning, she would not make me have to rely on this thing.
Racking a round in the chamber, I set the switch on “Single Fire,” and pulled the trigger two times. It fired, that was enough. I thought again about the grunts out there with maybe a dozen smaller ones with twenty or so rounds each. It just wasn’t very much.
The weapons were tested. Nothing more to do, but try to relax and save my strength. I needed to get my thoughts in some kind of order. What was happening up there? The activity reports said mild contact. Would we have to shoot our way in, and out? Would that be considered mild contact?
I took a quick inventory of my feelings. Am I scared? No. Well, maybe a little nervous. It’s okay to be that way, not knowing exactly what lay ahead. It was hard to believe that after everything I’d been through, I still had no idea what being shot at was like.
Excited? Yes I was very excited. I could feel the anticipation building, starting in my feet. They rocked up and down, picking up the pace as we neared our destination. This might be it, the moment I had both wanted, and dreaded at times. All my decisions and actions had brought me to this point, and whether or not this kind of excitement was a good thing, it was awfully exciting to be here.
All the radios were on, except the music. I was in no mood for the Beach Boys. The pilot talked to the Radio operator on the ground ahead. Under other circumstances, that could have been me down there. Again, I felt thankful for my pillow.
The guy explained that a patrol made brief contact with a small bunch, the day before, one click (mile) north of the base. There were bad guys in the area. If we did make contact, a small bunch (untrained and mostly unarmed) always was the number I had in mind.
The tapping was getting faster and spreading up to my legs, when reality hit me, and when it did, electricity ran up my spine. This was not water up ahead. It grabbed me, and let me go just as quick. This feeling was much stronger than fear, or excitement, even both.
My mind and body came to an agreement, to let me see what they had known all along, but only for a brief second, knowing I couldn’t stand longer. Maybe they were right. Looking down, I saw a little round wet spot on my pants. Did I just pee my pants? When did that happen, and why hadn’t I noticed when it did? That sure wasn't good!
Just then, well before I was ready, the ship started its decent. Everything started feeling different. My excitement turned into this acute awareness, my doubts into determination. The fear never changed. Would it be this way from now on? Anticipation built with each tiny dip I felt as the blades lifting us, each made its full circle.
“Okay! Lets be alert! Turner, watch that tree line at your two o’clock! John, there's a hooch over there, stay on it!”
“I’m on it!” John answered.
He sounded so good, so confident over there. Nothing came to my mind for me to say that would make me sound like my stuff was together, and nothing was better than dumb. Pulling Betsy off the clamps, I brought her up to firing position and pulled the bolt back, half way, to see the round already in place. I pushed it back hard to make sure it was seated well enough to fire when the trigger was pulled.
The landing zone was just up ahead. Any signs of movement, anywhere in front of me was probably hostile. I thought of something I could say.
“Are there any friendlies outside the wire?”
As soon as I heard my own words in the headset they sounded stupid and I regretted opening my mouth. John didn’t, and immediately got on the radio.
“What about friendlies? Is there anything down there we shouldn’t shoot?
The way he repeated my question made it sound important, and it made me feel I was actually contributing something important to the mission. Our questions had also gone out on the radio, and we got our answer from the man on the ground.
“Negatory! Nothing out there belongs to us! Anything moves out there, it’s all yours!”
The ground was coming up fast. There was tree line about a hundred yards out from the perimeter and I watched for flashes or puffs of smoke. We couldn’t hear them with all the noise we made, and it was one way we could tell they were shooting at us. The other good way to tell, was when we felt them hit the helicopter. I found myself half hoping something would move. When nothing did it was a little disappointing.
In a clearing inside the wire they popped a green smoke grenade. Colored smoke was used in the field to mark where they were, or where they wanted us to land. When we neared the area, we would call ahead and request smoke.
This had to be done. Sometimes the enemy monitored our radio conversations. They could hear us requesting smoke, and would pop one too, probably made in the U.S., in an effort to trick us into landing in a place more convenient for them. We would identify what color we saw and if it didn’t match, well.
We touched down a little rough compared to Poncho’s usual landings. All the grunts assigned to unload us, were crouching behind anything that would offer some protection.
As soon as we settled, everyone came running over and grabbed a box or case as fast as they could, and ran back to some kind of cover.
In just under a minute we were empty, and it was time to clear my side for takeoff to the pilot. That was fast, hardly any time at all. They seemed almost too excited to get what we brought them. I was looking back to clear the right side, wondering if the wind we caused was the reason, when, out of the corner of my eye, some dirt flew in the air!
What was that?
Then, another one. This time, I saw the explosion. That was a mortar round!
“Oh My God!”
The grunts were in a hurry and now I knew why. Our helicopter was sitting in an area the enemy already had zeroed in and a very choice target like us was drawing unwanted attention.
I pulled the sixty up and crunched down behind it, wishing I had that chicken plate. In that moment of confusion I forgot to clear my side. I forgot all my duties. Poncho wasn’t waiting. He pulled back on the stick, and we lifted off. Barely ten feet up, he pulled a hard left, and I saw clouds. He straightened out and the tree line came up to meet me, not fifty yards away, and everything in front of me… was jungle. Somewhere out there, someone tried to blow us up!
They could be anywhere, or everywhere. And, except for one pistol the pilot might be able to stick out his window, I was it, outnumbered, and overwhelmed.
But, from somewhere in my mind that still had some reason left, there came this “protective” feeling. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say it was like a mother bear, not quite as strong, but the same desire. These guys on this helicopter with me, especially John, they care about me more than anyone else other than my family has ever done. I love these guys, and I don’t want to see them hurt, especially if it was my fault. My fear of doing that was becoming stronger than the fear of whatever was out there in front of me.
It was right there, at one of those points in my life where whatever decision or action I made would have life changing consequences, and I learned these times don’t always come with time outs. The first thing that came to mind was to pull the trigger.
The pulse of rounds exploding out of the barrel started to calm me down, almost. There was a rhythm to it and I was being drawn into it. Everything else seemed to fade as the power of what was in my grip, forced itself to the front of my mind.
My tracer rounds went dead straight into the area all along the tree line, while I looked for a positive target to aim at. Nothing! I kept firing bursts in one long line in the area ahead of us, into any spot big enough to hide a person. It was hard to choose because every place looked that way. There was so much area to cover and so few bullets going out. I would never to be able to shoot everyone that could be shooting back. The only thing I can hope for is spread enough hot lead out there to keep their heads down, until we can get out of the way.
“All right! I think we are Okay now! You guys can cease fire!”
John had been firing too?
Betsy got quiet when I let off the trigger. The barrel was smoking, heat waves pouring off it. Then, I remembered the one on the wall in the arms room.
“Short bursts! Short bursts!” I knocked myself in the head.
I glanced down at my pants. They were dry. Whew! It must have been just an accident before.
“Everyone okay? Everything all right back there?”
Poncho was glancing back and I nodded. He looked genuinely concerned. It wasn’t a concern about me, but a concerned for me. He was checking, doing his job, making sure we all came out of that intact. Once I actually got started, it started to feel like I was doing my job like everyone expected to do. I actually fought back.
John came around to my side, flipped up his visor.
There was such honesty in the way he sincerely wanted to know.
“Yea! My barrel got a little hot, but I’m doing alright!”
He put his hand on my shoulder, squeezed, then turned and walked back over to his side.
The four of us were becoming a little family, John and I closer of course. We had just been tested under fire. We had been fired on, or bombed anyway. There was a feeling of general relief throughout the ship, relief we all felt that no one got hurt. This was what bonding was all about. Each experience we would go through would bring us even closer together. Just to be a part of something like that, was the greatest feeling in the world!
We landed back at our base the day’s missions were done, for us anyway. At the cleaning station, I took extra care with our weapons. Making sure they worked every time we needed them had now become extremely important to me now that I knew, first hand, how much. It was an important responsibility and I liked being dependable. It must come naturally with growing up.
That night, we sat in our room with a few other gunners, who were usually the ones with stories. This time we were the ones telling the story. Although a couple mortar rounds hitting near us didn’t take long to tell, everyone agreed, some rather reluctantly, that technically we had been baptized. The saying was “You lost your cherry” talking about a persons first time in battle. It didn’t seem like a very war-like term to use to observe that event, but I’ll take it.
Time seemed to slow down after that day. It was still exciting to fly, but nothing else had happened since then. I missed the excitement that I felt, and I wanted a little more. There were still strict limits in my mind as to how much, just in case the dealer decided to grant my desire. I needed another opportunity to work on some of the things I’d done wrong that first time out. It was making me edgy, even bored.
This was the monsoon season and Charlie wasn’t very active. The rains completely soak the countryside flooding much of the area. Its fine for growing rice, but difficult to run a war in. So, we delivered the mail, the colonel in Saigon got his scotch, and I tested my weapon. We sat up on the bunkers at night listening to other gunners tell their stories of times past. Listening to them reminded me there was still something out there I had yet to completely experience.
Our “Day Room,” was a place in the hooch we gathered to play cards and watch TV. We had one station, AFVN or Armed Forces Vietnam Network. I saw my very first music video on that TV. It was Steppenwolf’s “Snow Blind Friend.” Being in there meant more to me. It was my room now too. I went in there often to grab a book or magazine and sit reading it, waiting for anyone else to pass through. I would nod slightly, just to see them nod back. That’s how good it felt to belong, and not be the only one that knows.
There was a board in there that we kept track of what ship was flyable and who was available to fly. Little red and black marks on top of the numbers indicating whether each ship was flyable or not. Three of our ships had little red X’s on top of the numbers. That meant the ship had been gone down, due to engine failure, or enemy action. If the x was circled, the ship had been recovered.
The space next to that was for the type of mission it would be flying. “CA” meant combat assaults. “SS” meant hauling supplies around. The newer ships flew mostly the supply missions. The ones that have seen more use, ferried the troops. Flying in a brand new helicopter was nice, but it wasn’t a good thing for my chances of seeing anything exciting, anytime soon.
Next were the spaces for the names of two pilots, and two gunners. The company clerk would come down about eight o’clock at night and post the status of those that would fly, and what they would be doing. So far, our ship remained on “SS” status.
Underneath the troop ships, were the gun ships. Even though the gunship gunners had their own hooch, their names were still posted in ours. It gave us a little confidence seeing who was flying there beside us. Six out of ten of their ships were flyable. That was a little unsettling. It was almost one third of their aircraft.
These guys went out usually two at a time, either as ground support for someone nearby, or they accompanied the troop carriers. They were wide-bodied helicopters, made that way to be a weapons platform and armed with as many as sixty-four rockets that the pilots controlled. The gunners had either fifty calibers, or mini-guns, either one a very effective weapon and they watched over us like mother hens. We felt safe whenever they were around.
In our platoon, most of the helicopters flew a specific crew. Some had been there long enough to have had their names painted on the nose covers, and unless something happened, they flew in it until they went home. Unless someone was sick, there was a slim chance of getting to fly on one of those. The men in our unit didn’t get sick very often.
There was a pride in our name and everyone felt it. Once we got in the air, the bond got smaller. It broke down into each individual ship, two pilots and two gunners in our own world. This had become my immediate family. On the ground, officers, even warrant officers, and enlisted men didn’t socialize and my little family went down to me, and John.
Soldiers on the ground fight together with everyone in the platoon or squad. For that reason infantry become close to their whole unit on the same level. The things they experienced were shared by more than what we saw as one helicopter with four souls aboard.
Many soldiers remember the siege at Khe San and everyone there remembers the ammo dump blowing up. Only four, if they survive, will remember getting shot down in a helicopter. There were so many different ways to experience this war, as I was finding out.
It didn’t matter what size, there was an actual feeling, or strength that could be felt just being around them, especially those that had flown together for any length of time. The longer they flew, the closer they got, and cooler they acted. The reassurance they felt, having someone to count on showed in everything they did. It felt good to have my sidekick, but I couldn’t wait until we became as cool as these guys.
Not being able to fly with the regular flight and make combat assaults with them was starting to bug me. John didn’t seem quite as anxious. When I returned from the day room after looking to see what we were scheduled for, he just looked for my yes or no then went back to his book. He had a better idea of what lay ahead and his obvious satisfaction at just flying non-combat missions for as long as they wanted him to, should have told me something. That flame was not about to go out though. I had to find out what it was all about for myself, and would. Someday our names would be on that list.
Knowing it would eventually happen didn’t ease the shock when it actually did. There on the board marked for the days mission, was One-two, one-four, one-nine, two-zero, and two-nine. The gun ships would be three-one and three-five. I turned and walked out, just like every other time to go tell John the same news.
Wait! Two-nine was our ship!
I went back and looked at it again to make sure. There it was! It was ours! My legs felt slightly limp, and were shaking a little, and they wouldn't stop. Feeling a little weak, I put my arm against the wall to support myself. And then, it was gone. It all took place in just a few seconds. It felt much longer.
I got angry with myself. I could not be acting like this and do my job, not without something going wrong. Then the anger was replaced by worry. Am I cut out for this? Am I going to be able to get on that helicopter and fly that mission tomorrow? Am I going to do something, or not do something, and get someone killed?
I felt so out of place. Everything about all of this was much more intense than I could ever be. Everyone else knew so much more than me. They could handle it. It started feeling way over my head. I needed to talk to John!
He was in his bunk, reading a magazine. He glanced up at me, first questioningly. Seeing the anxious look on my face, his features changed. Was that a little fear I saw there? Not John!
He knew. It was a silly question. I answered anyway.
“Tomorrow we go!”
I watched his face to see how he would take the news, and saw nothing. He’d put on his game face. I wouldn’t find any answers there.
“Alright then! Get some rest! You’re gonna need it!”
I kept standing there. No way would I get any rest. It was not what I needed right then. John seemed to know this. He knew my feelings and having already been where I am now, he should know my “concerns.” Like, does everyone go through this before combat? It was such an uncomfortable feeling and I couldn’t do anything to shake it. I wished this first time was already over with and I had the same kind of experience he had, the kind that made him more in control of his feelings. I was jealous.
Still, somewhere, mixed in with all of these confused feelings now dominating my thoughts, was my original goal, that cup, that desire to be something different, something better than before. It was what brought me here in the first place, and it hadn’t gone away. What was happening now, what I was dealing with, was counting the cost. Was I willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish this goal? Did I have a choice anymore?
John put his magazine down and studied my face. He always seemed to pick up on any differences in my moods right away. It didn’t bother me that he did. It would save a lot of time.
His voice was calm, not condescending, more reassuring.
“It’s Okay to be scared. Just remember what I told you about being serious and paying attention, and you will do just fine. Besides, it shouldn’t be all that rough tomorrow.”
There was still a part of me that felt funny being that exposed.
“I'm not really scared. At least I don’t think so anyway. I'm not sure what I am. I probably will be a little tomorrow though.”
Hoping to get some sort of confirmation that being scared is something that happens to everyone, I waited for his answer. He looked at me, smiled and tossed his magazine on the floor by his bunk. I thought he was ready to speak, until he switched his light off, rolled over and faced the wall. Was he going to sleep and leave me hanging?
“You’ll be alright. He said, behind his back... Get some sleep!”
It wasn’t going to happen but I couldn’t just stand there staring at his back, so I jumped up to my top bunk and lay there staring at the ceiling. It never got totally dark in our room because of the lights out on the perimeter and it seemed especially bright that night. I leaned over and stared down at John. He was sleeping already or was acting like he was. Either way, I didn’t want to keep him from getting a good nights rest just because I wouldn’t, so I lay back, alone with my thoughts.
John was acting a little different. He seemed detached. Was he down there with his own memories? After a few more minutes of trying to debate with myself, I couldn’t help it. I had to talk. There were still some questions that needed answers, before tomorrow.
My questions were not about what might happen, how I should act, or react. There were “other” questions that those who have not been in combat wonder about. There was one in particular that I only allowed myself to think of in my deepest thoughts, and never would have dared to ask anyone, until John came along. Now there was no more time, or reason, to put it off.
I spoke in a soft tone, in case he really was asleep.
I knew he wasn't!
The hardest one for me was first, but I hesitated. Maybe it was a stupid question after all.
His abruptness surprised me and I blurted it right out.
“Did you ever kill anyone?”
There was silence. Immediately I felt dumb for asking. Crap! I just undid everything that I had so carefully arraigned. I was about to apologize, when in this soft almost ghostly voice, he answered.
“Yes… David. I have!”
To hear him say it, and use my first name, it sounded so ominous, so real. He was on a whole other level than me, and I went from envy, to awe.
His answer made me think of a hundred other questions. “How did it feel? Were you ready? Did you hesitate? But, John was not quite himself. Maybe it was it me. Either way, there wasn’t the ease we usually had talking to each other. Afraid of messing anything up between us, I decided not to ask any more questions.
“It’s not that easy to describe.”
It surprised me when he said it, but I almost expected it. It wasn’t the first time he had answered a question I hadn’t asked yet. How did it make him feel? That’s what I really needed to know.
“I’ll tell you one thing! It ain’t as cool as you might think!”
That answer was not what I expected and I had no more questions. I put my head back down on my pillow. The light was making strange shadows on the ceiling, taking on an eerie form, almost like something was hovering over me, waiting.
No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t picture how it would be. My fantasies were only me shooting at them. Only recently I heard what mortar rounds sounded like, and I only saw bullet holes. What was happening right when those bullets were hitting? Somewhere in the middle of all this I must have dozed off.
It must have been a noise outside, something, but it woke me up WIDE-awake! I sat right up. Every cell in my body was electrified. What time was it? Was I late? Still dark! It must be early yet. How long had I been asleep?
Quietly, I climbed down from my bunk. I was shaking, nothing big, but it wouldn’t go away. I looked for John’s watch, and found it on a shelf in his locker. Three fifteen. Only one hour had passed. There’s still an hour before we have to wake up. That gave us another forty-five minutes before the helicopters started up. It didn’t matter. This was all the sleep I would get.
Too keyed-up to lay back down, and keep still, and not wanting to wake John, I decided to go down to the arms room and check the weapons out. Reaching behind my pillow where both of our bolts had been carefully stashed, I grabbed them up, and quietly walked out.
Walking along, my senses became more acute and I became more aware of things around me. I had made this walk many times before, never this early, and never under these circumstances, and never noticed half the things I saw, and heard, this time. Just by the sounds I could tell exactly what was happening.
There was a single helicopter flying low around the perimeter of the base, shining a spotlight around on the ground, looking for anything out of the ordinary in the wire. There was a jeep off in the distance, out by the guard bunkers, stopping every minute or so to check on the soldiers manning them. Sounds were coming from the hanger, where mechanics worked around the clock to keep the aircraft flying. Generators running, off in the distance, keeping the place lit. And sounds from the mess-hall, as the cooks prepared to feed hundreds of soldiers what they called breakfast.
It all seemed much noisier than it should be, especially at night when quiet was better. It was necessary because war is twenty four-seven. No one gets a break, or wants to give the enemy one either.
In my haste to be a part of it all, I never bothered to understand what the military was, in reality, all about, what the real reason was, for everything that was going on. The training, physical and mental, to the feeding, guarding, repairing, preparing, it was all coming clear to me. It was all being done solely to prepare for battle, for two armies to face each other in a desperate struggle to endure. That was the end of the line in war. Everything before, and after, is either preparation, or cleanup.
The exact thing happening on this base, was going on in Germany and all other places that the U.S. has bases, even where there wasn’t a war going on. They were practicing for battle. It was dress rehearsal. This was a live audience.
In Germany, I filled my jeep with gas to drive around the tank line. The only serious thing I accomplished was to get that guy to the aid station before he bled to death, which would have taken several days, but it was the most serious event of that tour.
Over at the P.O.L. station on this base, a guy was filling fifty-gallon drums with “Phu-Gas!” It was a flammable jelly, and when set off in those drums, it would blow a ball of liquid fire about fifty yards out, sticking to anything it touched along the way, slowly burning it to a crisp! It was pure brutality, but it did what it was designed to do, and very efficiently.
One morning, someone fortunately noticed that several of those drums on our perimeter had been turned around to face our bunkers. Charlie snuck inside our perimeter, and switched them around. That wasn’t the real scary part. The real scary part was that not one of the guards, anywhere along the line, saw them do it.
When they checked closer they also found many of our other defensive measures had been reversed or disabled. They even got to a few of the claymore mines, little bombs filled with pieces of jagged metal and ball bearings that was the equivalent of about fifteen shotgun shells all banded together, firing at once. If we had ever been attacked and anyone set them off hoping to destroy the attackers, the results would have been appalling.
This enemy we were fighting seemed to know everything about us. Our base had many of the local villagers working on it, doing mostly menial labor, but it gave them access to most places. They probably had the entire base all mapped out, years ago, including all of our defensive measures, maybe in preparation for another Tet. Nope! This certainly wasn’t Germany!
As I opened the door to the arms room, the light inside came pouring out shining on me like a spotlight. I felt suddenly exposed and hurried inside, closing it behind me. The guy behind the counter didn’t bother to ask to see my card, and I didn’t offer to show it to him. John’s was first in the line and I pulled his out of the rack, watching out for my shins, then did the same with mine. I nodded casually at the guy on the way back out and made sure to hold my gaze until he nodded back, then pushed the door open with my foot, and closed it just as quickly.
At the cleaning station I put our weapons up on the table, and starting with John's, I removed the barrel and took it apart. My hands were in pretty bad shape from the daily cleanings and I wondered if the damage might be permanent. This war was taking its toll already.
The bolt and trigger assembly went right into the solvent, getting a good soaking. Then I took the brush and scrubbed them down. Everything needed to work perfectly tomorrow.
Wait! Tomorrow is today! It was already getting light in the eastern sky. Time was starting to pass a little quicker. Wiping them dry, I placed each part back with the weapon it came from, making sure not to mix them up. It probably wouldn’t make any difference in the way they operated, especially the springs, but I was taking no chances. That started me thinking again, worrying about making some innocent mistake.
Just slow down, pay attention and it will be Okay. Remember what John said, that he didn’t think it would be that bad.
I calmed back down. At least I wasn’t “Freaking Out.” I didn’t need another “Hang Up!”
The bolts were last. There was no question which bolt went with what weapon. Johns was starting to look worn, while mine was almost new. His wasn’t worn out enough to jam on him, but then again, I was no expert.
All the little ways he either taught me, or carried me and generally watched out for me, never asking for a thing in return, it was started to mean something new to me. A new level of unselfishness started to grow in me and I actually started to understand.
So! This is what it’s like! The satisfaction that comes when my only concern is not about getting all I can for myself. It requires sacrifice but comes with its own reward. There is a satisfaction so complete, so personal, and so sensitive, that it will go away if you tell anyone else about it.
Not thinking of the consequences or even if it was a true sacrifice, I installed my bolt in John’s sixty, and his in mine, and took them to the rack. With nothing more I could think of to do I went back to our room to wait.
Off to the east, the sun was coming around to that side of the world and there was just enough light to make everything look different. Shadows moved here and there and it all took on a ghostlike atmosphere. The noises picked up, more jeeps, and a few more people. Pilots were headed to the operations building for their daily briefing. What would be said about today’s mission?
Off in the early morning sky, five red blinking lights headed into the sunrise. It was a mission going out. They must have quite a distance to fly, to be out this early. A night mission coming in, like “Night Hunter Killer,” a voluntary mission, would only be two, maybe three.
In the distance there was artillery fire. I counted off the seconds.
One… two… three… four… five… six… seven, then… a long, low, BOOOOOOM! Another one fired, and the pattern repeated. The timing seemed off, especially for war sounds. They usually didn’t happen this early. Someone must be in trouble out there. It made me feel even more fortunate to be safe here on this base. Why then, was I about to leave that security, and do it voluntarily? It made me question my logic.