The sweat ran down from under his helmet into his eyes as he hacked at the jungle undergrowth with the two-foot machete. He and the small group he was leading were following orders. The sergeant had told them to go west until they reached the edge of the jungle. When they reached that point, they were to set up an outpost--an outpost with limited radio contact so the enemy wouldn't know they were there.
He turned and looked back the way he had come, a task made difficult by the thick jungle which seemed to grow back as fast as he cleared it. He could barely see back through the tunnel he had carved with the machete. Somewhere back in the bamboo and vines, the rest of the group, which had been tossed together hastily for this job, followed in a single file.
Fate had thrown the three soldiers together. They were misfits. Bringing up the rear of the small procession was a soldier called "Chief." He was a "permanent" private by virtue of his own choosing. Chief was a rebel, someone who didn't care about rank or giving orders. He was regular army, RA, or "regular asshole" as the soldiers on the front line called it. He volunteered, some of his friends suspected, to escape the poverty and brutal life of the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota. Chief was proud of his Sioux heritage, and his fellow soldiers respected that. They didn't know his first name, and they didn't care; they just knew he was the best "tunnel rat" in 'Nam. At times, it seemed that he enjoyed his work too much.
In the middle of the trio was Roadgrader. He was everything that characterized a man who didn't like to fight. He was a huge, gentle man from rural Kentucky. He even looked like he didn't belong in the jungle. He was US--a draftee. His dream was to learn a skill, to be a heavy-equipment operator so he could escape the poverty of the Kentucky hills. However, the army had pulled a cruel trick on him. After arriving in Vietnam, they had reassigned him to the infantry when all the openings in the division's engineering company had been filled. Some hasty, on-the-job M-16 rifle training made him eligible to be a replacement in Company B, 1st Battalion of the 1st Infantry Division--"The Bloody One."
He continued to chop at the jungle growth as he led them through the jungle. As a farmer's son from central Minnesota, he had the training for such labor. He was an average man, so ordinary that he had not even earned a nickname. He too was US--or "usual shit" according to "unofficial" military records. Two months out of high school, he had found himself in the army. At the time he had no idea what it was about; he just followed orders like a "good" American draftee should.
His family nurturing had taught him about obedience and hard work. It had paid off since he was in the military; he made squad leader and the rank that went with it after only eighteen months in the service. Of course, not all of it was his doing. Some of it had been through the waste of war.
He changed direction slightly when Roadgrader shouted that according to the compass they were veering off course. He always hated being on the point. There was the feeling that at any moment a shot would ring out and that would be it. He had seen too many of his buddies disposed of by snipers that way. What was it the sergeant said in Advance Infantry Training? Something about, "Don't worry, you won't hear the one that gets you." He didn't see anything funny about it now as he slashed at the vines and bamboo, swiftly sidestepping the falling red ants.
He was wondering about what kind of mess they had been tossed into this time when he suddenly broke clear of the jungle. Roadgrader and Chief came up and lay down beside him. They were facing a rubber tree plantation. It never ceased to surprise him how orderly these "forests" were. It reminded him of the corn fields back in Minnesota. It didn't matter which direction one looked, a person could look down a row. It just wasn't natural. Trees should never be planted like that. But then again, not much else seemed natural here either since he arrived from the states.
The three of them took out their trenching tools and began to fashion a shallow depression in the earth at the edge of the jungle. He grimaced internally as he dug. Was he helping to dig his own grave? Was it just another latrine in the jungles of Vietnam? As soon as they were finished, he reported in to the sergeant. He took the first watch while Chief and Roadgrader made themselves comfortable for a short nap.
As he looked down the rows of trees for signs of movement, he thought of where they were and how they would get back. He figured that they had gone about a hundred yards. Not much more than the length of a football field, but in this jungle, it might as well have been a mile. It would seem even longer if something happened and they got trapped out here alone. Helicopters wouldn't be much help. Some napalm and a few hundred rounds of artillery would dispose of the obstacles in no time. God! He was starting to think military.
It was mid-afternoon when they arrived at the edge of the rubber plantation. He made small talk with Roadgrader and Chief as the sun slowly settled into the west--the usual chatter about their dreams and what they would do if they survived their year in the jungle.
By three o'clock it looked like early evening as the dense canopy overhead cut out the rays of the sun. He anxiously waited for the radio call ordering them to return to their unit. At least there was safety in numbers when they were with their unit.
Suppertime came and they ate C-rations from their packs. The light dwindled as they smoked their after-meal cigarettes. Later, when he judged it to be around five o'clock, he tried to call the sergeant for orders. There was no answer.
He thought about their alternatives: to go back without orders or to go wandering through the jungle in the dark and get shot by "friendly" fire. These fears were enough to make him decide to stay in one place. Chief didn't care, and Roadgrader didn't know any better. He finally gave up on the radio, thinking the battery was dead. He told Chief and Roadgrader that they had no choice but to stay put; the lid of darkness closed over them.
They talked in low whispers and hid under their ponchos to smoke cigarettes. Although they were aware of the danger of the cigarettes being spotted, they ignored the fact that the smell could also be used to detect their presence. The risk was small; they had their hole--their security.
The three men in the shallow hole passed the time by talking about their lives. Talking seems to keep fear out of one's mind at such times. They shared their secrets, dreams of what they were going to do when they got home--the talk was of change, an escape from the life that had dispensed them to their present status. As they talked, all was quiet in the pitch-black of the jungle darkness.
They had set up an informal guard rotation. He took the first watch, but their plans for a rotation ended about midnight when the first noises were heard. It was hard to figure out what the noises were. The noise was out of place in the pitch black of the jungle. They finally could make out the noise as voices of humans. The people were talking in a language that they couldn't understand. The three of them lay in their hole, embracing the ground tightly as the sounds came closer; the sounds seemed to be coming straight at them.
All he could think of at that moment was the three of them being captured and forced to march to the north as prisoners of war. A number of nightmarish thoughts went through his mind. What about the torturing that would surely go with being a prisoner of war? He tried to recollect his training--what to do in this situation. All he could remember was that if captured, he was supposed to give only his name and number. He remembered his name, but he had to practice his number: U-S-5-5-1-6-9-7-8-9. He was ready.
The noise kept coming closer. It was almost directly in front of him, couldn't be more than ten feet away. It was almost as if he could reach out in the darkness and touch the strangers. He thought quickly about what the three of them should do if they got in a fire-fight. More than likely, it would be a mass suicide. He thought about whether any of them would be found. Would they just become part of the jungle--taken over by the maggots and forgotten as they rotted in the hole they had dug for themselves?
He told Chief and Roadgrader that if
the voices got too close, they should open up with everything they had. As far as he was concerned, it would become every man for himself. He knew that Chief and Roadgrader were thinking the same thing. They remained quiet, listened, and prayed. The voices were excited; as he listened to them, he thought they were moving toward them. He wished they would have been more careful in their disposal of the cigarette butts and C-ration cans. They had cast things away without much thought about who would see the rubbish. It suddenly dawned on him that their trash could get them killed.
He wished he could have a cigarette, but the chance of detection prevented him from lighting up. It started raining and the night became even darker and scarier. He was miserable; he lay there with the rain falling on him in the muddy hole which was filling with water. He feared and hated the snakes and lizards that came out in such weather. He was trying to decide between snakes, lizards, and the foreign voices.
It seemed like it took forever; the voices continued out in front, and the rain fell steadily. He thought about the night a few weeks earlier when he lay in a rice paddy for eight hours. He couldn't help but think how ironic it was that rifle fire and artillery rounds were a pleasant diversion at that time compared to the leeches that kept trying to suck the blood out of his body. He couldn't remember how it happened, but for some reason he dozed off. A short time later, he awoke with a start, trying to get his bearings. It was quiet, and the rain had stopped. He spent the rest of the night shivering with Chief and Roadgrader in wet clothes lying in a hole that was half full of water. They didn't know if the strangers had passed them by. It seemed that the strangers and their voices had evaporated into thin air. But, as he had been warned in training, the Viet Cong were shrewd; they could be right out in front of them, lying in wait.
As it became light, he looked anxiously out into the rubber tree plantation. He cautioned the others to remain still in case there was someone still out there. They remained still and silent for an hour. When it seemed safe and light enough, the three of them withdrew silently back into the jungle. Chief led them back along the trail they had cut the day before. They retraced the cut jungle vines, discarded cigarette butts, and litter they had left behind. He was shocked when they arrived back where he had been given orders to set up the outpost. There was nothing but garbage left: C-ration cans, empty ammunition cans, and green colored water and fuel cans. He noticed the fresh holes dug in the ground, and a huge opening had been cleared for helicopters. The silence told him that they had been left behind.
The fear of the night returned. The expected strength in numbers wasn't there. After some time, Chief found the trails the company took when they left the area. They followed the chopped-up jungle, empty C-ration cans, and cigarette butts for an entire day. Chief and Roadgrader said they should be going the other way--they wanted to escape.
Chief was good at tracking; he just followed the trail of trash through the jungle. They caught up with the rear of the company that afternoon. It didn't take long before they found that they had not even been missed. It hit him like a mortar shell: they were no different than the tin cans, cigarette butts; they had been discarded--just like the trash.
In the end, it didn't matter anyway. Specialist 4 James "Roadgrader" Fuller died two months later in an ambush at the age of 19. Chief and the farmer from Minnesota were near him when a "friendly" encounter--U.S. artillery--hit his fox hole. Private First Class Raymond"Chief" Pichette signed up for a second tour. He died in 1968, at the age of 20, in a booby-trapped tunnel in Tay Ninh Province, 45 miles north of Saigon.
The farmer, at the age of 20, was thrown back into United States society after 366 days in Vietnam. He took with him a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, much bitterness, and psychological wounds that will affect him for the rest of his life.
This magazine is produced by the Write Place and is funded through a St. Cloud State University (St. Cloud, Minnesota) Cultural Diversity Committee allocation.
Contributors retain all rights to their work.