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In our world beneath the canopy, the predawn smells of wet foliage, rotting humus, and moist earth hung heavily in the air. The sky above the trees was beginning to glow with the first hints of dawn, and the jungle was alive with the chirping of birds and the hooting of monkeys.
I sat up tentatively in my hammock and dangled my bare feet over the side only to be shocked by the sensation of cold mud beneath my soles. Balancing in my suspended perch, I reached into my rucksack to remove a can of foot powder. A little powder between the toes was one of the few pleasures the jungle permitted. I picked up my boots, turned them upside down, and gave them a vigorous shake to dislodge any creatures that might have sought shelter from the downpour. I didn’t need any surprises that early in the morning.
After lacing up my wet boots, I stood and did a few toe touches to stretch my cramped back muscles. Sleeping in a hammock had the disadvantage that you couldn’t roll over and so fought a constant battle to get comfortable. There was only one position, and that was flat on your back.
Though my morning stretch had brought my system to life, I was in no mood for a breakfast of cold ham and lima beans, so I dug out a package of lightweight, dehydrated Vietnamese rations. In spite of ingenious recipes and in-the-field concoctions, it was a rare troop who savored the taste of C rations. Still, most of my team members didn’t relish the taste of dehydrated rice rations either. I was an exception. They had the advantage of being a lot lighter than C rations, and after more than a year of experimenting with them, I had come up with a number of variants, including: rice with instant cream and sugar, rice with cocoa mix, rice with dried carrots, rice with hot peppers, rice with instant soup, rice with dried minnows, rice with dried shrimp, rice with dried spinach, and rice with Tabasco sauce. That morning I selected rice with dried minnows. After adding a half canteen of water and a few minnows to the plastic bag the meal came in, I tied off the top with a rubber band and set it on a nearby stump. In fifteen minutes, the water would be fully absorbed by the rice.
I glanced to my left and saw the silhouette of SFC Bob Cole rolling out of his hammock. Well over six feet tall, Bob was a huge black man who reminded me of James Earl Jones. I could never quite figure out how someone his size could sleep in a small Vietnamese hammock. To the Bodes, he was affectionately known as Trung si Camau. They were awed by the fact that the chocolate brown color of his skin was as dark as their own, yet he was so large in comparison to their slight frames. Bob was an operations sergeant who came to the Mobile Guerrilla Force from one of the Special Forces camps in Tay Ninh Province. He had been assigned to the 3d Platoon after George Ovsak was killed at Trang Sup.
“Sleep okay?” I asked in a hushed voice.
“Yeah, not bad. Got up around two-thirty,” he yawned as he laced up his boots. “Checked the guard and went back to sleep.”
“Looks like the storm moved east,” I said.
“Yeah, it’s breakin’ up,” he said while staring up at the sky. Through holes in the canopy, we could see a few stars in the early morning sky.
“Hope so,” I mused. “My toes look like bleached prunes.”
As Bob and I talked, the grays were quickly turning to dull shades of green, yellow, and brown, and high in the canopy a few monkeys cried hoot, hoot, hoot as they scurried from branch to branch.
His boots laced, Bob took a couple of steps to where I was pulling the quick releases on my hammock.
“Hear those explosions?” he whispered.
“Yeah, around three-thirty. Sounded like a Sky Spot going in a few klicks north of here.”
“Think the lieutenant called ’em in?”
“May have,” I said.
“It’s amazing how they can bomb a target in the middle of the night.”
“I think it’s all done with computers,” I whispered. “We radio the coordinates of the target back to the air liaison officer in Bien Hoa. The ALO phones ’em down to the III Corps Direct Air Support Center at Tan Son Nhut, and thirty minutes later, good night Charlie. From thirty thousand feet below, ya can’t even hear the plane.”
“It’s all computerized?” he asked.
I guess we were all amazed by some of the state-of-the-art wizardry and sophisticated electronics being tested.
“Think so,” I said. “I’m not sure how it works, but from what I’ve heard, the coordinates are fed into a computer, the aircraft locks onto a radar beam, and the computer calculates the bomb release point.”
“How accurate are they?”
“The air force won’t let ya call ’em in any closer than six hundred meters,” I said. “But when it’s gotten tight, we’ve lied about our coordinates and brought ’em in a lot closer.”
“Better be damn sure of your coordinates,” Bob chuckled. “If you’re wrong, you’re history.”
“You got it,” I said. “On Blackjack-31, I almost shit my pants.”
“What happened?” Bob asked as drops continued to filter through the canopy.
I explained that one night one of our listening posts reported a large enemy unit on the next hill. We contacted Bien Hoa and requested that a Sky Spot be brought in on the target. About thirty minutes later, the air was filled with the soft whistle of bombs falling through the blackness. As the whistle grew louder, we all hit the ground. I could feel my heart pounding faster and faster. Then the jungle lit up like an enormous flash bulb had gone off, and the ground buckled and heaved from the concussions with such force that it seemed as if someone was literally shaking the jungle floor beneath us.
“Betcha a lot of prayers were going up to Buddha,” Bob whispered.
“Better believe it. Every Bode had his Buddha crammed in his mouth,” I said. “The problem in the Dong Nai Valley was that the terrain looked like a thousand green balls on a pool table. It all looks pretty much the same whether you’re humpin’ through it or flyin’ over it.”
As we talked, Thach, our Cambodian platoon sergeant, could be heard checking the men. Since the Viet Cong often attacked at dawn, he made it a practice to have everyone saddled up and ready to move before first light. Bending over beside my rucksack, I opened the side pocket and removed a toothbrush and toothpaste. A splash of water on my face and the sweet smell of Colgate Dental Creme were a real treat. Even though my body was covered with layers of dried sweat, mosquito repellent, and grime from the previous day, the morning ritual somehow made me feel clean.
In the lower levels of the canopy, hundreds of small lime green birds chirped as they fluttered from branch to branch. High in the trees, a thin layer of mist glowed white, and a few monkeys sat watching our every move. Mornings were always the best time of day.
I removed my T-shirt and slipped into my damp camouflage fatigue jacket as Bob squatted beside me and switched on our PRC-25 radio.
“I’d better check in,” he said matter-of-factly. “Our primary still 42.70?”
“Yeah, 42.70,” I said after checking my commo pad.
Fox Control, this is Fox Three. Over,” Bob whispered into his radio handset.
“Fox Three, this is Fox Control. Over,” Lt. Jim Condon responded from his position near the center of our perimeter.
“Control, this is Three. This is a commo check. How d’ya read me? Over.”
“Three, this is Control. I read you five by five. How me? Over.”
“Control, this is Three. I read you same. Out.”
“Better change that battery,” I said as I stuffed my wet poncho in my rucksack.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’ll booby-trap it.”
“Trackers’ll pick it up,” I whispered. “They got a way of rechargin’ ’em.”
“I’ll rig it for instant detonation.”
We found that if we didn’t rig fragmentation hand-grenade booby traps for instant detonation, the normal four-second delay gave the enemy plenty of time to jump clear of the explosion.
Looking up through isolated holes in the blanket of vegetation, we saw welcome patches of blue begin to appear. It was going to be a clear day. As I listened to the radio, I heard Recon and the 1st and 2d platoons making commo checks with Lieutenant Condon. The familiar sound of their voices was reassuring.
“Bac-si,” a hushed voice called to me. Anticipating a serious problem, I felt my heart rate accelerate. When I neared the source, I saw that it was Danh, our silent weapons specialist.
“What’s wrong?” I whispered.
“Bac-si, Rinh have thing on mouth. You look.”
I followed Danh, and a few meters away, we found Rinh sitting in his hammock. With his mouth wide open, he had a blood-filled, brown leech attached to the end of his tongue.
“Told ya not to sleep with your mouth open,” I joked with a sense of relief.
Although smoking was not permitted, I told Danh to light up a cigarette. That was risky because the telltale scent of tobacco could be detected far downwind. When Danh handed me the cigarette, I carefully touched the sluglike sucker with the glowing tip of the cigarette. In a few seconds, it released its hold and dropped off, enabling me to squish it into the mud with the heel of my boot. Rinh stood there, spitting.
“Numba ten,” Danh grunted in disgust as I removed a canteen from Rinh’s rucksack and crushed a few salt tablets in a cup of water.
“Wash your mouth out,” I said as I handed him the cup.
After gargling and spitting for a few more minutes, he flashed me a toothy grin.
“Feel better?” I asked.
“Yes, Donahue. Thank you.”