As my condition made me fairly listless prey, it was decided that I would enjoy a last night of repose with the hope it would at least provide me the energy to try to run away when unleashed at dawn. With the mechanical cacophony continuing unabated outside – trucks, jeeps, choppers rattling everything in constancy – punctuated by the distant, or far too close, explosion or burst of gunfire, sleep would be a fantastic way to characterize my experience that final night. Lashed down and guarded closely, I passed out exhausted only to find myself insanely active in my dreams. I would know no peace while vital in this place.
I danced and laughed with the way-foxy blond, the music loud and off key, the lights flashing and disjointed. “Sharon,” she told me her name as we danced and kissed and pulsed with the groove. As the lights flashed intensly I realized that Jimi played on the stage, the Beatles as his back-up band. I sensed Clapton despairing while Jeff Beck coaxed him down from the noose and step ladder. And there was Jimmy Page with a mic and recorder capturing every note Jimi played. The music was dark and ominous, “Helter Skelter” filtered through sheer madness, and the crowd got freakish and ugly. Zappa looked up from a table near the bathrooms and nodded at me. Dylan chased Edie Sedgwick through the crowd, babies in tow, crying, crying, the sound not unlike the local language, almost feline. Then Charlie, psycho little Charlie, watching the show with the satisfaction of having one’s orders implemented, yet finding no joy in what they offered. I recognized some of the other dancers, the tragically mundane girls he shepherded about, like him, joyless in their celebration, dispassionate and cold. As they waved to the music their hands were revealed to be clutching butcher knives, and they stabbed and stabbed to the beat. Soon everyone was gushing blood from numerous horrific gaping wounds, but the dance couldn’t stop nor could the dancers. A scream, loud and terrified, I turned only to see Charlie right up in my face (he stood on a box of Beach Boy records) sneering at me demonically. Pulling back I realized he held Terry Melcher’s severed head by the hair. Terry looked at me and sang, “Que sera sera…”
I woke only to find myself looking right into the cruel eyes of Colonel Ming staring at me just inches from my face. I yelped with surprise, which startled him and he jerked back in shock, bumping into a nurse carrying a tray of medical ejectamenta, causing her to stumble and slam into one of my SVA guards, dropping her tray of used needles, scalpels, and mangled bone saws right on his foot. This inspired him to leap back in shock with a shout, tripping over the cot next to mine with the poor fellow so abused by Colonel East, falling back on him, blood gushing from his violated foot, firing wildly through the roof of the tent, severing one of the ceiling’s structural supports. This swung down hard, still attached at one end, and caught Ming right on top of the head, knocking him to the ground. I didn’t imagine this would improve his attitude toward me in the day’s coming activities.
Incensed, Colonel East stormed over to the escalating madness around me, “Jesus H, K Ryst!”
While two SVA soldiers helped the clearly shaken Colonel Ming to his feet, another helped the soldier with the violated foot and itchy trigger finger off the poor bastard on the cot, Duq Ling Duk; the nurse, So Soo Mi, frantically trying to gather her leavings, as they all yowled and howled at each other in distressed embarrassment. Livid, East burst upon the action, “What the holy hell is going on over here?! Is this too much for you Ming?!” Blood trickled from Ming’s wound, his face still bruised and head lumpy from his earlier dance with me. I didn’t get a sense I’d be doing much running. Ming looked at East, seething venom. “I am leddy.” Wiping blood from his leaking head, “Rerease him!”
Two SVA soldiers undid my restraints and during an instant Ming was occupied berating So Soo, who fled in shame, I was able to snag one of their knives, stashing it in my boot as I stood, slowly, wobbly, the soldiers preoccupied with maintaining my vertical attitude. I played weaker and more diminished than I was; I needed them to underestimate me. They did. They all but dragged me from the tent, stopping at the flap for wounded to be admitted. The harried little So Soo scurried past, poking my butt with a needle as we waited. I figured Ming had had her poison me, but instead she actually may have saved me. She had injected me with amphetamine.
Four SVA troops escorted me to the N/E perimeter of the post, then motioned for me to run, one firing into the air while another shot the ground near me. There was no cover for at least 50 meters and I knew I was being observed, so I made that distance slow and impossibly painful looking, the nurse’s spike of love in actuality making me feel strong and fabulous. I made cover in about 7 minutes, stumbling weakly, falling several times, to drive home my impotence, but as soon as I was clear of their line of sight, I moved quickly and quietly, like a leopard, through the increasingly thick undergrowth, wildly overgrown, shrouded in menace.
Terror driven and wired to the tits, I moved along the thin canopy near the Fuq Tu River, sampans bobbing off shore in the thin morning mist. I kept close to the trees to reduce my visibility, kept low to deny the aggressive a target rich environment with me in the crosshairs. The dawn was upon us; soon the sun would reduce my concealment options and my struggle would be over. It was very still and I moved silently with a purpose.
I moved through a thick fern beside a huge jacaranda, avoiding the necessary visibility the easier path around the foliage would accord me. As I stepped into the darkness, my left foot compressed something metallic with a distinctive ‘Click.’ I was about to blow up. Just fucking great. I resisted my first impulse to dive away (wisely it turned out) and maintained a fixed position, considering my predicament. This consideration alerted me to the nature of the device I had trod upon. It was a landmine to be certain but not the usual step and bang kind. It was a Bouncing Betty, a U.S. knock-off of the popular German death machine enjoyed during WWII. These were particularly nasty; you step on one, it launches a shrapnel bomb about a meter high, then explodes, sending burning shards of steel into everything within about a 15 meter radius.
For some reason, this one didn’t launch or explode. It appeared that as long as I remained upon the offending trigger, I would remain unshredded. But how long would that be? It could activate at any instant, leaving me Art deconstructed and Bouncing Betty an Art distributor. My options were decidedly limited: I couldn’t stay yet I couldn’t leave. I had to choose wisely.
I thought back to all of my thoroughly unrelated, non-military training – I was fucked. But then my acid defilterization kicked in, abetted by the increasing clarity provided by So Soo’s amphetamine pick-me-up, and I considered my position in a different light. Full awareness of the moment, stripped of all emotional trappings, what had I done? I had stepped on a landmine. But had I? No, actually my boot stepped on a landmine. And I thought it was on my side. And it was, my left side – had it exploded, it could have left me all right.
Okay, I needed to focus. I also needed to leave. Upon focus it became clear I needed to leave my boot. But I could tell Betty was a springy bitch and my boot would likely not preclude her nefarious purpose upon its weight alone. It could not wait alone. I removed my right boot, maintaining strict attention to my mechanical antagonist under lefty. I filled it with stones, then sat with my right foot on my left boot and undid the laces carefully, keeping the pressure on. But not too much. I removed the laces entirely so as to allow me freedom of movement, then, holding it down with my hands, I slid my foot out. I was sweating the bullets I was certain would be plaguing my progress at any second.
With my right foot on my left boot, I quickly filled my left boot with stones and then replaced my right foot with my right boot, the weight of the two sufficient to hold Betty’s trigger down. I tied one lace to the other on the right boot and then affixed the free end to the branch I had pulled back stepping into the minehole, figuring that if I had done it, those tracking me would as well. I left a couple of decoys to draw my pursuer’s focus. Stepping with delicate caution, I made my way into the jungle, barefoot and desperate, appreciating having averted no-footed and disparate.
After I had gone two clicks (I don’t know what that is but it sounds more Nammy than miles or the more realistic 300 feet) I heard an explosion behind me. It appeared that Ming had come upon my path, much quicker than I had imagined. It also appeared that one of his group might have located my missing footwear. I figured this would only increase Ming’s resolve but it actually had the opposite effect.
I found out later (this paragraph in fact) that Ming had met his demise with my booty trap. As was his custom, he led the stocking party and was the first to come upon my boots. He quickly bypassed the first decoy but the second one offered particular menace so he wisely avoided it, returning to the safely triggered first one. He didn’t realize till too late that the first decoy was also the actual trigger, which released the spring-loaded branch lashed to my stone laden boot.
The release caused the boot to be jerked violently into the air, kicking Ming in the mouth, dislodging his teeth, knocking him off his feet. The faulty trigger of the Bouncing Betty fired, launching the projectile which exploded, shredding the inside of Ming’s legs and crotch with nasty red-hot shrapnel as he hurled backwards. While an abysmal failure at successful work, I appeared to be racking up points in the Great Game.
This bought me some time as now East would have to kill me himself, which, had he known, he would have just shot me in the tent and been done with it. He had no mind to chase around in the mine-studded, unexploded ordinance laden jungles of the Quang Tri Province – death awaited out there in 10 thousand variations, while life hung by a silk thread stretched to the snapping point. There was no joy for the hunt in East; he was tired. He’d had ‘Nam up to his eyeballs and the prospect of chasing me into that shit held equal appeal to multiple poisonous snake-bites.
So he called up a chopper. I, of course, couldn’t have known this, not having the benefit of having read the previous paragraphs. Thus I operated from the perspective that Ming was still eyeing my head for a space in his trophy case and moved with requisite urgency, certain that my booty trap had done nothing to ameliorate his ire. My lack of footwear made me move with considerably more caution than boots demanded, which kept me off of any of Betty’s buddies, as well as slowing me enough to spot claymore tripwires. I tended to much barefootism in my normal day to night existence which served me well as it accorded me fairly tough feet meat.
I poured sweat in the dank humid air, the mosquitos big as horseflies and brazen as bulls. I had taken to punching them when they got too close as they seemed to find their vile ways around much of my mad smackery. This worked surprisingly well and, abetted with additional weapons, kept them away from me, watching from the foliage. Waiting. I’m sure that if I’d gone down, the little fuckers would have swarmed me and sucked me dry. One did get a taste – it found the one spot on my back I couldn’t reach – and after supping my highly drugged wares, promptly flew about 2 meters from me and exploded. What can I say? I am not succor for the meek.
Owing to the high number of assholes I have dealt with in my life, I developed a philosophy young: better other arms then my own. I like my hands, hell I like all my parts. As such, I see no good reason to use those parts to defend those parts if other parts can be found as good if not better. So I arm myself. In this instance I started with the soldier’s knife. As I left Betty with my boot ease, I found a decent sized shaft – about 2 meters long, 4 centimeters in diameter – and sharpened both ends to nasty points. I used it as a walking stick which allowed me to keep weight off my feet, so making it harder to track me. If I was going to work for it, so would they.
I trudged through the sweltering foliage, bugs, birds and beasts making their appropriate noises as the sun rose upon the mourning. I came upon what appeared to have been a village but had tragic moonscape qualities to it now.
Flat, cratered and burned, this was no longer a place where people lived. The terrain around the former commune of Son Trung was brown and devastated, the village itself a scattered shambles, remnants of homes and lives rent asunder, incinerated and cast to the winds. The U.S. wanted the local communities to pull back from the DMZ, but as they really had no place to go, they dug in. Literally. So to further convince them that their property values didn’t warrant their locational affinities, the U.S. dropped some persuasion devices from aircraft high above them. These persuasion devices exploded and engulfed them in flame, which seems pretty persuasive to me.
But the folks still didn’t have any place else to go. The country was a high impact paradise, everything was exploding and burning and seething poison, while everybody was running around shooting each other and blowing things up. This is not what one would call an ideal travel environment. Especially when your travel agent uses napalm to outline your itinerary. With the devastation around me, I realized I had run out of cover. My pursuers had run me right into the Dead Zone, as good a place as any to die, one supposes, and better than many. Who the fuck wants to die in the Fun Zone? Weirdos…
I listened. It was strangely quiet. I had been moving at a good clip, had covered my tracks, had taken a few switchbacks just to keep them on their toes and moved completely obscured through the tall grass; perhaps I had lost them. I peered from behind a tree – Zing! a bullet ripped through the trunk an inch from my head, the bark almost biting me. As I pulled back, the entire area around me was riddled with small arms fire. Yep, lost them.
I looked at my knife and pointed stick – there was a possibility I was outclassed armamentwise. The nice thing about pointed sticks is that they don’t run out of bullets and they fire very quietly, more than can be said about my pursuers’ weapons. When they stopped their wild firing owing to the lack of bullet thing, I peered back. Another thing bullets do is discharge smoke, lots of smoke. Owing to the sun’s placement, between Ming’s men and me hung a wall of smoke, all but visually impenetrable. I spotted my target, a crater at the far edge of the burn zone – could I reach it before the smoke cleared?
I rushed through the clearing, low, lithe, grabbing any cover available, though the duvet proved completely useless and I forsook it. Before I could reach my crater, some of Ming’s men made the edge of the clearing and had me spotted. I flung myself forward, like a cheetah, long low strides attaining remarkable speeds in no time. Cheetahs. I wasn’t even a leopard, just another stupid, spotty bastard. So my lunge into infamy was little more than me tripping over my clumsy feet, stumbling, toppling over, rolling, leaping up, then realizing that I had kicked off a properly functioning Bouncing Betty when it popped up as I bounced down. To my good fortune, in the midst of my horrible fortune, I made it into the crater just as Betty burst, blasting bomby bits back brutally, burning a bunch of bemused barbarians behind badly.
I crawled from the crater, but just as with the former residents, didn’t have any place really to go. So I went away from those who pursued me with the hope that Betty had dissuaded them, even if just a little. Then I heard the chopper. At first a distant dull thudding, then the rumble and horrible sound of the engines tearing up the air as the blades chop and chop and chop. I crawled and scampered and scurried across the devastated terrain, bullets whizzing past me through the smoke behind. And still the encroaching ‘copter, rumbling, tearing, chopping, coming to kill me.
I made a final, desperate run toward a clump of actual growing stuff and the grasses beyond – if I could reach them I might be able to conceal myself. Then behind me, a huge explosion: dirt, rocks, debris, fire, picking me off the ground and depositing me about 5 meters from where I ran. I crashed down to the ground hard, my back pain now to the forefront of my consciousness. I closed my eyes and winced with agony – when I opened them again I found myself looking into the eyes of what appeared to be a 7-year old Vietnamese boy. He looked at me from below the ground, concealed in the grass: a tunnel. His curious expression gave way to human compassion when he understood my predicament: bullets flying overhead, the ground behind an exploding maelstrom, angry shouts and the terrifying thunk, thunk, thunk of the chopper, an instant away from clearing the smoke and spotting my position.
The little fellow, to my surprise and short-lived delight, scampered out of the hole and motioned for me to get in. Without doing any of that thinking I take so much occasional pride in, I dove head first down the hole, just wanting to be out of that particular hell. I heard him shout, then realized the poor judgment my action revealed – the hole was about 15 meters deep and nearly vertical. There was a ladder carved into the side of what appeared to be an air vent, but nothing but blackness as I bounced and skidded down the limestone shaft at free fall velocity. Instead of the big neck breaking crunch I anticipated, came a face slapping splash, then plunge into subterranean submarine sewage. The hole was full of water. Well, at the bottom.
Blackness. I couldn’t move, make a sound, hear and now, breathe; my new blackness came with no air. Splendid. My head swam with this upgraded degradation but my body was useless; I thought of the convenience of dealing with dead people who were already under the ground, felt pleased I wouldn’t at least be aiding East in shipping his poison to feed the beast. I felt contentment that in my last moments, I would take the effort to rhyme.
Then pressure, my foot, my ankle, I was moving up, though at the moment that could only be a guess based upon simple reason; there was no need to pull me down as I had already achieved that direction superbly on my own, with a gravitational assist.* Then, hands pulling me, tugging me, dragging me up, out of the airless black mess and into the breathable blackness. I coughed and spewed and gagged and found all my limbs and parts and then realized their pain. Blackness.
I opened my eyes. I was in a carved-out slot in a wall of solid limestone on a pallet with a mat. I was naked and as my eyes adjusted to the very dim light I realized I was being observed by numerous Vietnamese citizens. Somehow, inexplicably, I was still alive. It took me a moment to gather my wits; they had set them to dry, along with my clothes, near the warm hole. Not the worm hole, the warm hole. Try to keep up.
I found myself in the Vịnh Mốc Tunnels. This was a fascinating display of human determination and insanely hard work. The denizens of Vịnh Mốc decided to avoid refugee status by digging downward – they moved their villages underground. Upward of 60 families lived in this complex on and off (in and out) from 1967 to 1972. Thousands of meters of tunnels were dug by hand through the limestone, where the local villagers could hide in safety from U.S. bombing designed to drive them out, destroy their morale by destroying their lives.
They originally built their subterranean villages 10 meters deep, but the U.S. countered with burrowing bombs set for that very depth, so the locals responded by burying their new improved villages 30 meters deep and remarkably survived the insane bombing which was focused upon the Son Trung and Son Ha communes. Insane? The U.S. dropped an average of 7 tons of high explosives per resident and killed none of them. The tunnels, vermin infested disease holes, Black Echoes as the US forces called them, killed more of the residents, as they sought refuge from Western gun/boot diplomacy. A lot of buck for their bang.
I learned this from Tran Sit Bus, 14-year old head of the Sit Bus clan, after his father, Met Ro Bus was killed in a hit-and-run by a taxi driver in Da Nang. Tran, to my good fortune, spoke French and as I painstakingly outlined my predicament, he came to understand me as not only a man, but a huge potential liability. It was decided (I wasn’t consulted) that I would be sent out with a couple of Chinese Nationals who had taken refuge there a day before into the Demilitarized Zone. That night.
The village survived because they avoided the predations of Western thinking; my presence was not in any way to their advantage and my problems posed an unnecessary risk to their fragile wellbeing. I entirely appreciated their position – 30 meters straight down – and knew that if I could only be rid of that son of a bitch Art, my life would be measurably enhanced as well. It was beginning to dawn on me that I was not a welcome guest anywhere. I was even unwelcome as a captive, where considerably more effort was made to get rid of me than to abduct me in the first place. Where ransom is not paid, I am released.
Like me, my social standing was through the floor.