Marco’s group was always dropped into masses of bamboo, 7-foot high grass with skin-scratching edges, 3-inch diameter trees with branches like weeping willows, and 4-foot-tall thorny plants that wove between the whole tangle. All this was interrupted with oases patches of 2-foot-high cord grass with gooey marsh soil that smelled like skunk cabbage.
“The ground bubbles up like a cess pool.” Marco loved to tell this one to the new Nam arrivals. “The only good thing about the patrols is you can fart and no one can tell because of the background stink of the place.”
Skulking through all of this with the bugs, heat and sweat was a distraction from the mission. For the last month, the mission was the same. Chase the North Vietnamese into Laos, stage a firefight and kill the bastards. If they get killed in Laos it justifies going outside Nam borders. That was what the Company Commander told the sergeant and what the sergeant told them that the brass told him. The problem was that the Vietcong guerillas maintained a tunnel and cave society well away from the small hamlets. The VC forayed into the villages and intimidated the South Vietnamese, took food supplies, raped the women, and escaped back into their lairs. As always, Marco’s patrol was dropped into one of their presumed nests by the helicopters. The Hueys were so loud that the marines may as well have sky-written their presence. They were now 30-minutes into the patrol and where the Christ was the enemy? He attempted silent breathing and noiseless movement like everyone else. The VC were here. He and Leon had developed sixth sense awareness after their third patrol in Nam.
Marco’s tactical recall rambled. The trouble with patrols was they never chased the VC because they never saw them–just their obvious trails going into Laos. The Hueys dropped the patrol on the trails and then Marco and the other marines went from the drop point on “good reconnaissance” volunteered by a concerned Vietnamese citizen-patriot spy. “Whatever the Christ that meant?” Marco always asked the sergeant. What they were really doing was seeking out their own ambush. The last two patrols the VC emerged from their tunnels and came at them from behind. That was expected and anticipated like now. This worried Marco. He was rear guard. Marco tapped Leon on his helmet.
“Leon, I could get my ass shot off because the gooks are going to wait for us to go past. I’m a back-asswards point man forchrissakes.”
“Just follow my butt and keep quiet.” Leon moved forward with his posture bent slightly at the waist just like the rest of the patrol ahead of him.
Leon was always in front of Marco except when Marco was point. Marco fixed his gaze at Leon’s butt and did as Leon suggested.
Marco had a layer of mosquitoes on his green-and-black painted face. Rain-like sweat was constantly stinging his eyes. The GI issue headband got saturated 5-minutes after they disembarked from the Huey.
“The VC can smell the bug repellant so you’re an asshole if you wear it.” Sergeant Royce admonished them time and again. “It might repel the bugs but it attracts the VC. Anyone wearing the bug juice answers to me and the rest of the patrol. That stuff will bring the VC down on all of us.”
Most times the green and black make-up kept Marco’s skin from being bitten, but the noise the mosquitoes made produced a constant background hum. The buzzing seemed continuous and loud because on patrol the rule was to maintain complete silence. They used hand signals to communicate. Leon was holding up his hand for Marco to stop and to hit the deck and crawl.
There was a sudden blinding white-pink flash, a loud blast, a sudden pushing sensation and black smoke. Marco’s ears were ringing and he couldn’t hear the mosquitoes humming anymore. The soles of Leon’s boots were the last things he saw. He looked around. He was in a black hole. How did that happen? Marco took physical inventory. He didn’t hurt anywhere. There was dirt, plants, branches and cordite stink everywhere. He forced his eyelids apart and could see daylight after pushing away a carpet of stringy wet dirt on top of his helmet and face. The bright flash spot gradually disappeared from his central vision. He could hear sounds of movement and garbled or foreign language but it seemed far away. Dark, vague humanoid shapes appeared. Marco squeezed his eyes open-and-closed trying to regain his focus.
They were moving and were dressed in the black VC pajama uniform. His entire patrol was down. Marco was frozen with fear and horror. The VC were going from Marine-to-Marine poking them with a bayonet or knife. God, one of the VC was turning Leon over pulling his steel pot off. Marco’s thoughts were in panic mode. The gook had a knife and was cutting on Leon’s face, Leon wasn’t screaming. He wasn’t moving. Marco hugged the ground. He tried to become one with the mud, broken twigs and uprooted vegetation.
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