BERM GUARD--The Story


Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. There's no other word for the sunsets in South East Asia. Although it was 1968, and I was in the Mekong Delta on anything but a nature trip, I couldn't keep the word from reverberating in my mind. Beautiful. More beautiful than any female I'd even seen. More beautiful than any music I'd ever heard. Perhaps those sunsets were the very definition of the word beautiful: striking, fleeting, unforgettable.

Fleeting was the operative word, I suppose, at least for those of us from the US or any other temperate zone, accustomed to lingering pink clouds off to the west. It was always a surprise to me that at any given moment you could be walking around in broad daylight and fifteen minutes later it'd be so dark you could close your eyes and not know the difference.

So it was, that I sat on the berm of Dong Tam base, enraptured by the gigantic, hypnotic, brilliant orange orb, slowly descending beyond the treeline into, what I knew from geography must be, the Pacific Ocean.

Going. Going. Almost Gone. Need the flashlight. Lock and load the 16 and 45, lay 'em in the bunker window. Load an offensive in the 79, lean it below the window. Drag in the ammo cans. Lay it all out right where I'll need it.

Gone. Dark. Wait and adjust, hoping nothing happens right now. Adjusting, but trying too hard. Let it happen...stop squinting, stop rubbing my eyes.

OK. Even after a hundred or so nights, it still takes a while (two, maybe three minutes?) until the eyes adjust to the pitch black of a jungle night. So now the mind only has eleven hours and fifty some minutes to get used to it. But it never does. It tries...it knows it should...it's been here before, and it remembers...but it never does.

Crosslegged, Zippo down deep by the privates, wrist watch in hand, quick flash. Shit! Call in due 8:PM. It's only 6:20. Thought sure it'd been two hours.

OK, remind the brain that it ain't light until it's light. Can't rush this shit, y'know. Can't go gittin' panicky...it's still early. Two-three in the morning, that's when the panic comes. Deep dark night when there's nothing but noise. No sounds (please God, don't let there be any sounds), just noise. Jungle noise. Night noise. Blind noise.

Hours measured by minutes. Minutes measured by breaths...I'm hyped, I should probably count 18 per minute. Seconds measured by pulse...I can hear my own heartbeat...I can feel it...gotta be over 100 per minute...lifting me towards panic. No! Flash. It's 6:50. God, when will it end? I've been out here dozens of times...I'm not a FNG, fresh incountry with no clue...I know the tricks the mind can succumb to.

Light a smoke. Burn the hand, but hide it good. Three on a match was bad in WWWII, here even a hit of light can bring the wrath of Damnation. Am I looking out the "window"? Which way do I listen? I can hear muted, drifting voices from "behind" me. Probably the mess hall or the chopper pad. C'mon guys, laugh! Gimme a friendly fix. No, that's panic thinking. Reach out, cautiously, fumble, touch my beloved 79, know that's the "way it is".

Breeze up, hear the elephant grass rustling gently. Neat, so soothing. Damn, can't hear over it. Could hide the sound of somebody crawling. Noise, nothing but noise. Couldn't hear the sounds if they were there. Fucking jungle's so goddamnned noisy! I can't see, now I can't even hear! I'm fucking blind and deaf and in a war, for chrissake! Whoa, whoa, help me Rhonda...it's just another night on the berm, man, no biggie. Pull your shit together.

Flash. 10:15.

Thump. OK, maybe it wasn't a thump. Maybe it was just a thimp. Maybe it wasn't nothin'. Nothin' at all. I didn't hear shit...it was just my mind fucking with me. Called in twice now...it's close to midnight. Near the hump, almost halfway there...please Lord, I'm almost there, don't let nothin' happen now! Thump. 16 nestled in my shoulder like a weeping lover, poked clear though the window, saying "Damn you! Make another sound! Gimme a fucking reason!" All silent. No more thumps, no thimps, not a sound to be heard. Just noise.

Flash. 10:35.

16 still laying on the "window sill". 45 nestled in my hand, atop my uneasily- breathing breast, as I stare towards where I think the "window" is. Staring with blind eyes...isn't that out of a poem or song or something? Please, Lord, let something happen. Something nice. Let some gook trip one of those mag flares in the concertina, or set off a Claymore, or just make a fucking sound. One fucking sound. One godammned fucking sound, and you're history, you motherfucker! I'll bring the vengeance of US Army down on your ass, you sonuvabitch! Make a fuckin' sound, you slimy fuckin' gook, and I'll blow your ass to Hell and back!

Flash. 10:40.

Too tense. Back off, man, mellow out, or you won't make it through the night. Ease off the trigger. Set the 79 back down. Count to 10. Forget you're blind as a fucking bat! Forget you don't give a shit about this fucking war! Forget you didn't even ask to be here! Forget you're gonna get killed in some miserable stinking jungle in the middle of the night and nobody'll even see you die. Forget the country you came from where they spit on you for doing this shit. Forget...forget...forget...but remember...you've been here before.

Flash. 11:55.

Close enough. "This is bunker five checking in". "Bunker Five, Roger". And now another two hours (and five minutes) before I confirm that there's somebody else on my side. Before a friendly voice reaches out of the darkness and silence to toss me a feather-light anchor to reality. Never mind, I'm closer to sunrise than sunset. I'm gonna make it.

Flash. 2:05

Numb. Called in, could care less. Too much dark. Too much noise, and no sounds. I will gladly kill the next thing that enters my blind, deaf world.

Flash. 2:10

It's a freefire zone. So why not? I'm majorly bored. I'm tired of waiting for somebody to kill me. I don't really give a rat's ass anymore. If they had any balls, they'd have already come for me. Why not "make pretty" with some tracers? Lotta other guys on the birm that'd enjoy the diversion, I'm sure. Most of 'em are 18 or 19, just like me, kids with an armed attitude.

Flash. 2:35.

Worn to a frazzle. Would sleep on guard duty, if my brain weren't so madly wired to the madness at hand. Lord, if I ever get back, will I ever be able to sleep again? Without a gun in my hand?

Flash. 2:55.

Thump! Finger to 16, HellFire! Clip gone. What did I hear? Clip around, more tracers. Drop clip. 79, fwooomp. Can't wait for the boom, gun up, casing out, new round, down and fwooomp! First one hit, can't wait for second...gun up, casing out, round in, slam on window. Grab 45. Big noise! Eight away, fuck the pistol. Back to back clips, 16 twice. Hellfire and brimstone! I'm ready to piss my pants. Was it close? I care. Grab a nut, yank the pin, toss it outside, hunker down, feel for 45 clip...can't find it. Boom, reach up, pull 16, flash fire into empty night. Scramble for 79, fumble... HELP IS HERE! Small arms fire (the definitive sound of 16s, not AKs) is on the job. Tracers from everywhichwaytoSunday. As I scramble amongst the hard steel at my feet, searching desperately for the "hard love" that will deliver me from Death, the silent darkness of the jungle night is abruptly challenged by flying demons of fire. Magnesium flares on mini-parachutes. Night becomes the most brilliant of days. Fuck the 45 ammo...where's the 16 shit? Oh, God, I pissed my pants, and I'm so glad I'm alive to feel it! 79. Fwooomp. Tracer rounds brilliant even in the broad daylight of a 3:AM jungle night. The birds are cranking up...the Wrath is at hand. I have been delivered.

Flash. 3:30.

All calm. Did I fuck up? Did I unleash the American military on a Vietnamese frog? It was freefire, so nobody'll ask. Maybe I stopped a charge on the wire. Maybe I didn't. Whether I killed a frog, a pig or a gook, it was fun. I needed to kill, to lash out, to be what I am, a warrior. So I did.

Flash. 4:45.

Dawn soon. Glad I won't be on the detail for morning perimeter sweep. Gotta be some leftovers out there...messy work. But it's still dark. Blind dark. And there's still no sound...only noise. Please hurry, sun.

Flash. 6:00.

Daylight! Glorious daylight. Back to the hooch for four hours' sleep, and then another normal day at war in the Nam.

Until the next wonderful sunset and another night on the berm.


The author wishes to remain anonymous, but his copyright is assigned. This Warrior served in the 9th Infantry Division (US Army) - Mekong Delta - '68-'69.

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