On Patrol in the A Shau Valley

The January 2013 Story of the Month was submitted by Ronald J Friedman.

On Patrol in the A Shau Valley
By

Ronald J Friedman

He's pretty sure he's sitting on an overturned wooden crate that had been used in the past to haul citrus out of the fields. He knows he's holding a handgun, a Smith .357, not official issue, but a lot the guys carried them. It proved useful in the tunnels. But he's certain he will not use it because he is sitting in his garage, a narrow beam of afternoon light pouring in through the one small window, sitting on his orange crate back in the far corner of the room.
He weighs the gun in his hand. It doesn't feel right. It might be a good idea to check to make sure it's loaded.

For brief moments he imagines the light is bright enough to be tropical sunlight unfiltered by the triple canopy. He was on patrol in the A Shau Valley in Viet Nam and has just emerged from the jungle that blocked the sun. Overhead banana trees, palms, thorn bushes and banyans are laced together, tight enough in places that they not only blocked the sun, but would detonate bombs as they hit the high trees as well.

His thoughts slide past each other, raising questions. Who bombed the trees?
He grips the pistol a little tighter. He's not certain, but he knows he might need it.
It seems light in his hand, but the grip fits nicely in his fist.

He is hot, sweat soaks his clothing. He can smell himself. Of course, it's hot here in the garage. It's midsummer and the air is stagnant. His attention is captured by a rustling sound beyond what he can see. The far end of the garage is cloaked in shadows. Far from the lone window, thin rays of sunlight that have entered through broken slats in the garage walls spotlight a million dancing motes of dust. He listens for a movement, watches for any changes that would signal possible enemy presence.

This is a recurring problem they all encounter when patrolling the jungle. It's easy to get disoriented. The environment is so hostile and strange that the trees, the sounds, the animals and even the occasional imaginary enemy soldier are surreal. Soon the surreal is normal.

Today, he and four others provided security for a small group of engineers. On a small rise they call Fuck Me Hill, about two klicks south of their base camp, he and the other grunts kept a watchful eye while the engineers fastened small bricks of plastic explosives to the bases of the trunks of maybe a hundred trees and then connected the explosives with det cord.

The heat, the noise, the echo from surrounding hills were stunning. He loved the explosions. He would tell others it was the precision that he admired, but that wasn't true. After the debris and dust settled they had the makings of a landing pad that was located high enough on a small hilltop to be easily defended.

He listened now for the flop flop flop of the Huey that would extract them, but the slapping sounds he heard that mimicked the sounds of the rotor blades were nothing more than a slap slap slap of flip flops smacking the tile as someone hurried along at the side of the pool next to the garage.

He is almost wholly convinced that he is not looking at a twelve foot long cobra with a head as big as his two clenched fists. He is in his own garage. The sinuous form is a coiled garden hose or, more likely, nothing at all. Still, it would be best to hang on to the gun for a while. He would prefer the familiar feel of his M14. In fact, he starts to reach for the pouch on his belt that holds two extra 20-round clips, but, of course, they would not be there on his belt; he was sitting in the garage ten thousand miles and 30 years from the Valley. To be certain, he shrugs his shoulders, but cannot be positive he feels the weight of crossed bandoliers of ammo, two sixty round magazines for the rifle he now holds at port arms.

There it is, man.

Stay alert. Several days before his squad rappelled into an enemy camp intel said was deserted. Nobody around. Cooking fires cold. He and another man guarded the perimeter. Suddenly a North Vietnam Regular army soldier appeared on the path. His partner saw him first and shot him. Be alert.
In the distance he is sure he can hear children's voices. He ignores them. They are an unwelcome distraction. Now he is not so sure about the voices. He struggles to blot out the images of the children. You're sitting in the garage, he reminds himself. The children are in no danger.
But if he is in his garage, why does he smell the rank fermented shit the locals use to fertilize the fields and the rice paddies? Smells are the most deceptive. He cannot trust the smells.

Suddenly, he is no longer in the garage. He knew it. He knew it. He let his guard down.

He hears small sounds that might pass unnoticed in the hot afternoon, in the smothering air, deep under the canopy in the A Shau Valley, but his experience allows for no mistakes. Someone is coming.
He slows his breathing. His mind is clear.
He grips the pistol tighter and turns in the direction of the sounds. There. The garage door swings open. Light floods the room. He sees only a small figure backlit by the sun.
A garage door, he thinks as he sights along the barrel of the pistol, using the orange plastic cap at the end of the barrel to lock on to his target.

``Grandpa?''

He pulls the trigger and hears C4 explode all around him, muffling the muted click made by the toy gun.

``Mommy says come eat lunch,'' a small voice says.

He pulls the trigger again just to be sure.

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Ronald J Friedman is a retired psychologist living in Scottsdale, Arizona.