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Pieces: Recollections of a Rifleman


Bleeding in the Dark
(excerpt)

Fifteen minutes before the attack, Specialist Fourth Class John Hass heard a sudden, brief noise coming from the black woods out in front of his hole. It was almost one-thirty in the morning. By then, Hass had been on watch in his shallow foxhole for nearly an hour, surrounded by darkness and bug noises. Now and then the caw of some tropical bird would punctuate his thoughts. Then, near the end of his watch, Hass heard a different sort of noise. It lasted only seconds, but attracted his full attention. It was the distinct sound of crunching foliage.

Sometimes a sentry has trouble gauging how far a noise has traveled at night. Sounds seem closer, louder, more menacing. Hass focused on a murky tangle of bushes near a tall black tree whose highest branches stood silhouetted against a starry sky. He listened and scanned the darkness, trying to separate silhouettes from shadows. He was wary, but not alarmed.  By that night in March, Hass was a grungy veteran and knew such noises were more likely made by the paws of a prowling animal than by the heel of an enemy boot.

The night was relatively quiet.Other nights the tropical forest was crawling with noises. Grunts learned not to get spooked too easily. Generally, even the noisiest nights ended without incident. If our fallen comrades could march back from Valhalla, they would remind us that dawn and daylight were far more dangerous.

Hass remained vigilant. The enemy had been sniping at the platoon every day since the end of Tet. Ineffective fire, mostly. The last Alpha company casualty had been killed two weeks earlier, on my twentieth birthday, the same day I almost lost my diary running back from an observation post. The same evening we arrived at the lake, a short exchange of gunfire had erupted as the platoon dug their fighting holes. There were no casualties on our side. We figured the VC had trekked to the lake for the same reason we had. It was the dry season, and that small, leech infested lake was the only source of water for miles around. 

Hass scanned the opaque woods for movement, and listened. Ears mattered more than eyes at night. Careful listening takes you deeper into the darkness. But for the remainder of his watch, Hass heard only the usual chatter of crickets, the burping of small frogs, the buzzing of mosquitoes. He didn't see anything suspicious, nor heard the noise again.

At one-thirty that morning, at the end of his watch, Hass crept out his shallow foxhole and quietly made his way the fifteen or so yards to my hole where he leaned in and poked me in the shoulder instantly breaking my sleep. I saw a dim silhouette looming over me like a sinister visitor in a bad dream. But I was more irritated than spooked by the sight and remained flat in my hole, immobilized by my need for sleep.

“Wake up!” whispered the dim silhouette.

I knew it was Hass. I recognized the hushed voice, the outline of his uncovered head, the barrel of an M16. I knew it was Hass and why he was there; I just didn’t want to get up. As usual, I yearned to remain horizontal, head on helmet, scrunched on the floor of a jungle hole, sleeping the sweet sleep of a weary infantryman.

“Get up!” Hass demanded a decibel harsher. “Your turn on watch, man.”

Often, when roused for guard duty in the middle of the night, I would think I was dreaming. It didn't seem possible that it was my turn, already. Often it felt like I had just laid my head down to rest moments earlier. But the silhouette was never a dream.

 "I'm up!" I finally mutter, still half-asleep. "I'm up."

Dragging myself into a sitting position, I take some comfort in knowing I'll be fully awake in a minute. I massage my eyeballs and rub my face. My hands are dirty from digging holes and the dirt will smear on my face, but I don't care about that. I roll my head round my neck and take a deep lungful of the cool night air. Lusty smells of jungle vegetation, freshly dug earth, and strong body odor sting my flared nostrils. My gummy eyes clear.

Continuing with my routine, I pick up my helmet - my five pound steel pillow - and place it outside my shallow foxhole next to my weapon. On this night, my weapon is a short, fat-barreled M79 grenade launcher, a blooper. It's been my weapon for almost a month. I traded Craig the machine-gun for it. The blooper isn't my weapon of choice, I just wanted to rid myself of the M60 machine-gun. I hated humping that 23 pound black pig. 

I'm getting use to the blooper, hitting my targets with the first or second round. Firing an M79 shell is like hurling a supersonic softball across a field. Harrison, the platoon leader, has begun calling me Artillery Blanco. But ultimately, I want my M16 back.

I lift the blooper a few inches off the ground and put it down on the same spot so I'll know exactly where to find it in the dark. I locate my large bag of M79 shells. As was also my habit when roused for guard duty, I pad the oversize pocket of my right trouser leg, checking for the comforting presence of my small, black diary.

Hass reaches over and presses a large luminous wristwatch into my dirty hand. “Here you go,” he says.

Now it's official.

The wristwatch handed me has luminous dials that are larger than those on my own wristwatch, making it easier to read time in the dark. In my rifle squad this large luminous watch was passed like a baton from sentry to sentry each night until daybreak at which time it was returned to its rightful owner, a grunt whose name I can’t recall. At night, when you had custody of the large luminous watch, you were it. You were the grunt on guard.

I check the time on the watch. The dimly glowing dial reads one-thirty a.m. 

Kneeling by my hole, Hass leans closer to make his report. “Listen,” he whispers, “earlier I heard a noise coming from over there.” He motions, pointing at a dark mass of trees, and tells me about the noise.

We scan the dark landscape. Through gaps in the tree branches I can see patches of a starry sky. I hear the usual chatter and buzz of insects, little frogs by the lake, the sporadic caw of a tropical bird. No abuse from the Fuk-yu lizards tonight. Nearby, I hear Sgt. Patterson snoring in his hole. His snoring is barely audible. Other nights the snoring is much louder. Once it caused friction between us. But otherwise I hear no ominous sounds, no twigs crackling under communist feet, no clinking metal. I hear nothing suspicious. I see no lurking shadows.

“OK. Got it,” I say.

Having made his report, Hass gets up into a crouch and departs for his hole, hoping to get some unbroken sleep until dawn. It wasn't to be.

(End of excerpt.)

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Copyright © 2002 Edward Blanco