Monday afternoon, August 5, 5:42 PM
He made it through another day at work like a mindless automaton, aware of every single detail but not personally engaged by any of them. The feeling wasn't new. Only this time, there was something wrong, out of balance, out of sequence. And he didn't feel much like talking about it. But here he was, six o'clock Monday evening, at another PTSD session. Thank God I'm done with that other shit and back to my regular schedule. Tonight it's Dr. Bondurant and then I'm off for another two months. Maybe we can actually get something done. Jason considered Dr. Bondurant one of his few real friends.
"You look a little tired today, Jason. Have a hard day at work?" Dr. Bondurant always seemed to start things off in a casual manner.
"Naw, it was pretty much a breeze. Just too damn hot in the warehouse."
"Have you been getting enough sleep?"
"Yah. I've been getting plenty of sleep, I think. I just feel droopy, like maybe I'm coming down with something." Jason rolled his head around, loosening up the tense neck muscles and listening to the popping and cracking sounds. Or maybe just finally going down with the ship. Sleep? Shit. I feel worse after wrestling with my dreams than if I'd stayed awake all night.
"I'd like to pick up where we left off last time. That would have been about almost 10 weeks ago. You were hinting around at something very important, I think. Let's talk a bit about your perception of where and how you fit into the world. Would that be all right?"
"Sure, Doc. Let's go for it."
"I believe you said you sometimes felt like you were "just hanging around", as you put it, with no special purpose or goal in life. Let's explore that a little." Dr. Bondurant eased himself back into his leather chair, writing pad on his knee, and smiled at Jason.
Right. Exactly what I want to talk about. I fit in sideways, that's how. God, sometimes this is all so pointless. But at least it's you. Not those other jerks. "I don't remember saying that, exactly. What were we talking about?"
"Susan. Your job. Your plans for the future......or rather, your lack of them. We were sort of all over the board last time, weren't we? But I kept getting this strong theme running through all of it. I'd like you to tell me a little about how you see yourself in the context of making a difference in the world."
"Oh. I don't really see myself as making much of a difference at all. I build communication systems. Actually, I don't really even do that. I just order the parts and make sure they get out to the field crews. Somebody else builds the systems. I'm just an insignificant cog in the wheel."
"But don't you like your job, Jason?"
"Yah, sure. I like it OK."
"Don't you think that your job is important? Just imagine the delays and confusion that would result if you didn't do your job right. Think of the money that your company would lose. You obviously must be doing something right. They pay you pretty well, don't they? And you've been at it for, what, four years now...almost five?"
"Shit, Doc. If I screwed up, they'd have me out of there so fast it would make your head swim. Monkeys can be trained to push paperwork around. There's nothing special about what I do." It's true. And if I don't get my shit together, I'm going to be out of that job pretty fucking quick. If I ever planned to stay around that long, that is.
"Aren't things going well at work? Last time we talked you said you thought you "weren't doing so hot". Was that an editorial comment, or have you been having some specific problems?"
"Aw, I don't know. I just can't seem to keep my mind on things. I can't get into it like I used to. I used to be a lot better at it. I could remember things without having to look everything up. But then, sometimes I'm not even sure I used to be that good at all. It's like I can't even remember. Sometimes my head just gets sort of mushy and I can't even think very straight." Like I'm a drugged zombie, suspended in a bowl of jello. Like every day little pieces of my brain fall out and just melt away and pretty soon I won't have any left. "It just seems like I'm a lot slower at getting things done lately. I don't know."
"Has anyone at work said anything to you about it?"
"No. I try pretty hard not to let it be noticeable. I just have to work harder at doing the same things that used to come so easy. I don't know. Maybe I'm getting dumber with old age." Dr. Bondurant was making quick notes on his pad.
"How about your medication? Have you made any changes in that recently?"
"No. It's been awhile since I've tried to cut down on that. I feel like I'm on the edge again. I don't want to push it quite yet." Fucking medication. That's what's making me a zombie. That will be good to get over with. To finally get away from!
"Well, we'll leave that up to you when you think you're ready to challenge it again with a slight decrease. But, in fact, it sounds like maybe you ought to increase the dosage a bit to see if that will help clear things up?"
No fucking way, man. That's the shit that's fogging me up. "No. I think I can work through it. It's just really a down cycle for me right now. I don't know why. Like I said, maybe I'm getting the flu or something. There's a lot of junk going around. I'm just not at peak performance right now."
Bondurant made a few more quick notes. Then he seemed to shift gears as he set the paper aside. "Jason, do you remember what I told you when we started that medication years ago? I know you don't like taking it. But don't you see how much more stable your life has been with it? I know that the level you're on has stayed much higher than we anticipated at first. But I think over time, you'll be able to decrease the dosage. It just takes time. You have to remember not to decrease too fast when you do. I'll leave it up to you to challenge it, but at a reasonable pace. Do you feel all right about that? Is that something you want to talk about?"
"No. I'm OK. I just hate feeling fuzzy. But we've been through that before. I can hack it."
"Jason, what do you expect from yourself? What would you do differently so you could feel like you were doing an adequate job? What would it take to make you feel like you were really doing a super job?" Dr. Bondurant leaned forward, hands clasped around his knee, not hiding his personal concern.
There's something smushing my head, man. It's fucking mashing me into the ground. "I just don't feel like I'm part of anything anymore. Maybe I never was. I just feel like I'm hanging out there on some old limb that's about to break off, with the mainstream of life going by somewhere out of reach, not caring anything about me. It doesn't even know I'm here. I'm not so sure I care too much about it, either."
"But if you don't care about it, then why does it bother you so much, not being a part of it?"
"Shit, I don't know. I just don't know." I don't even fucking care. I'm a short-timer now! Jason leaned back, resting the back of his head on the top of the short-backed divan, and stared at the ceiling. The lead hat was now an invisible plastic bag, smothering him, melting down on top of him. "I go home at night and I feel like I haven't done anything all day. Nothing worthwhile. But I'm still tired. Dog tired. I just feel like I never get my job done. I'm just spinning my wheels, Doc. When I get some big order out or ship off a bunch of equipment, then, it's like, so what. That's done, it didn't really mean anything, and then I'm back to doing worthless, piddley things. There's nothing that means anything to me anymore. Or maybe nothing ever did. I can't even remember if anything ever really meant much to me. For as long as I can remember, I've just stood on the outside, looking in. Never really been a part of the things going on around me. Kind of like I was included as an afterthought. It's really a shitty feeling."
Dr. Bondurant's words of wisdom and advice became a meaningless drone in the background as Jason tuned out the pointless rationalization that had become an old story to him. There was just too much to attempt to justify, too much to attempt to fix by intellectualizing. There was another solution that Jason had decided on. Much swifter. Much simpler.
As his attention began to wander, he became aware of a radio playing somewhere out on the campus lawn, its sound reflecting off the wall just outside the slightly open office window, two stories up. The reflection pattern was just perfect for where Jason had seated himself across from Bondurant's desk. He tested this arrangement subtly, bending forward to adjust his right sock, then leaning to the left to adjust himself in a more comfortable seating, all the while looking at Bondurant and nodding, grunting his agreement on things he never really heard. Each time he moved, the sound faded. Each time he centered himself upright, head slightly to the left of center, the sound became louder and clearer. Interesting acoustical phenomenon, Jason mused as he began listening to the song itself. It was an old one, from the 1960's. The kind he didn't listen to much anymore. The kind that brought back memories.
"What's that smells like fish, mamma? What's that smells like fish?"
The words to the song ran through Jason's mind several times a day. He couldn't even remember the rest of the lyrics. Just this one line, droned in a guttural, black Mississippi Delta slur, like a mixture of molasses and corn bread. The song was intended to be lewd and suggestive. But here, there was something that robbed it of its lewdness, that made it perfectly acceptable. And here, in Da Nang harbor, the only answer could be "everything." Everything smells like fish. Rotten, lewd, sexual, feculent, all-permeating, gross, yet somehow with a life-giving underpinning Jason couldn't quite comprehend.
At the main docks, the military had taken over the key locations for quick and easy access to the waterways. That portion of the harbor was always well guarded. The rest of the harbor was full of boats and other floating objects.
Look at those floating shacks. My God, there must be eight people, three generations, living on that one. It's smaller than U-Boat. That's fucking incredible.
The pile of weathered timber and tarps sitting atop the rotting hull slowly made its way inland along an invisible highway, aft of the string of similar floating shacks moored inside the harbor's protective mouth. A skinny, black-shirted person of no sex squatted with the till in the crook of their right arm, a two-foot flat, drooping straw sampan hat hiding all features.
I can't believe people actually live on those things. Christ, I'll bet it's been weeks since some of those people have been off the boats onto dry land. I don't know how they do it!
No doubt about it. The harbor stunk. It was a floating slum. Little kids would swim in the water in defiance of all health considerations including the occasional presence of poisonous water snakes. Everyone would bathe in the water, if they bathed at all. Everyone would piss and shit in the water. Sailors in the fleet said they were floating on the world's largest garbage can because they could throw anything and everything overboard and it didn't matter. Jason was in the world's largest toilet bowl. But it was also the main life force for thousands of people. He had seen the same thing in Taiwan and Hong Kong. God, what a totally different way to live. I couldn't do it!
Jason was an official drifter. He was brought in for 30 to 60 days at a time by chopper from a destroyer patrolling the Gulf of Tonkin, to operate with the Boat Support Unit. After a month or two with the PBR's, including three or four trips up river on his special missions, he'd go back out to the fleet, maybe to a different ship, until the next round of operations required his special expertise. He was a transient taxi driver. He was a support figure. He was not the real thing.
Jason hung in a very ambiguous status. He had been trained for a precision assault that would never take place in a war that had no goal or meaning. He had practiced being part of a SEAL landing force, but someone had decided we didn't want to win the war. The assault would never take place. The brief forays up river were for harassment, once in a while to take out a specific target or person, someone or something that was a particular nuisance and could be eliminated. But he didn't ever get to do that. He just drove the boat. The SEAL Teams required a way in and a way out. That's what he was there for. Support. Driving the get-away car. The rest of the time, he spent patrolling the coastal waters with the patrol boats, the PBR's and the Swiftboats, but not really an official part of that unit, either. Just temporary duty, TDY. Then he'd be back at sea, patrolling further out off the coast until the next time he was called back in. That pattern held for his entire 15 month tour.
Jason caught a lot of flack from the regular grunts who were the care-takers of the docks and the local squadron boats. He had been to college for a year as an Officer Candidate before he requested active duty. Everybody seemed to know it. The hardest time came from the jar-heads and swabbies who were in charge of keeping the Riverine craft in top running condition. The razing would usually go something like, "So! Big smart college boy, eh? Well, Mister College Education, think you're pretty smart, uh? If you're so fuckin' smart, what are you doing here?!!" Or, "I'll tell you, boy, this is the best fucking school you'll ever go to. This is BSU. We don't even give diplomas. We give out little wooden boxes and black plastic bags." Boat Support Unit. BSU. Bull Shit University.
Jason wasn't a long-term member of any Team. He was a water transportation specialist trained to support SEAL operations. He was skilled in weapons and communications, specifically covert operations like electronic counter-measures. He could operate the CT-installed ECM gear, where he just sat and monitored what kind of radar or guided missile system was armed and pointed at him as he moved up and down the coast. But as far as his status with the Navy SEALs, he was a "non-designate", not assigned to any Team. Not really SEAL, just support. Just the bark, not the bite. He was available to support every Team, but not a member of any. He wasn't officially part of anything.
The Teams would come and go. They stayed together as a single unit. They had trained together. They lived and died together. Jason remained forever an outsider. By the time he got the chance to prove himself to any particular Team, either they would rotate out or Jason would go back out to sea, to some nearby destroyer. Exactly what controlled the timing of events or the who-goes/who-stays decision was beyond speculation. After the first run up river with any Team, Jason was generally well on his way to being accepted, to whatever extent that was possible. After hauling Detachment Charlie up river four times, one of the Team had left a posting at Frogville, the local SEAL barracks: "If you're ever up shit creek without a paddle, make sure you've got an Orr." That's about the neatest thing that's ever happened to me, Jason would think as he occasionally recalled the message on the board. It helped. It felt good. But it was as close to belonging as he ever got. There was no possible way to build up the bonded walls of camaraderie when you couldn't stay around to share the pain and suffering of being together.
There was only one thing that made his whole miserable existence worthwhile, and that was U-Boat. The fastest, finest craft in Southeast Asia. It was unbelievable. It was undetectable. It was unbeatable. It was unconventional. It was U-Boat.
U-Boat lived in the belly of an LST mother ship somewhere off the coast until it would just magically appear along with Jason's orders to provide his services to a SEAL Team. U-Boat was something special. It was a stripped down, souped-up version of the standard patrol craft, the PBR. Like everything else in the military, it didn't have a straight-forward name. It was a PBR(S), patrol boat, river (special). So who cares what they call you. You're the best thing around. And you're all mine. To the best of Jason's knowledge, he was the only one who drove it, the only one who used it to take the Teams in. U-Boat was unlike any other PBR in the world.
It had a standard 31-foot fiberglass hull but with a bit of mesh-webbing reinforcement. Instead of the standard dual 215-horse engines, U-Boat housed a pair of incredible 305-horsepower diesel engines driving dual, over-sized water-jet pumps. Much of the ceramic shielding and armor plating was removed except around the engine housing, and along the 12-inch gunwale.
The twin .50-calibers that used to be in the forward pit had been removed and the pit covered over, but the .50-caliber on the fantail pedestal was there. The coxswain's flat was amidships, below the treated canvas canopy, and the small step-down cabin area centered amidships held the standard radar and dual FM radio system. The trade-offs made between weight and speed were perfect. The armament had been lightened and the power had been boosted. He could do better than 40 knots wide open in less than nine inches of water. This mother doesn't float, it flies. God, you're a beautiful piece of machinery. You're bea-UUU-ti-ful!!!
Every time U-Boat showed up at the dock, most of the time draped with a camo-cover to remain inconspicuous, it looked like it had just come off a show room floor. For Jason, this was true in spite of the fact that the flat-base paint job would get it laughed off the floor of any real boat show presentation. U-Boat was camouflaged brown and tan, with wavy streaks of green weaving around its hull and superstructure. It was intended to blend in with the natural scenery. It did that perfectly. It looked like chunks of shit floating on the muddy water, occasionally picking up the greens of the passing foliage.
Every time it showed up, it was always in the same condition. The .50-caliber smelled of fresh solvent and oil. The antennas and radome almost shined. The radios rust-free. The engine tuned to perfection. The ammo boxes cleaned and loaded. Three well-oiled M-16's and a dozen 30-round banana clips, all taped in inverted pairs, racked on the cabin bulkhead. An M-79 grenade launcher with two boxes of loads lashed nearby. When Jason looked inside the small cabin, a smile would spread across his face. And there's my .45 auto in the shoulder harness, complete with silencer, hanging right where it belongs. This is like being in heaven!
He didn't doubt that the impeller blades on the Jacuzzi pumps were brand new for each mission, although he never had an opportunity to look. He had no doubt the fuel tanks could hold more than a standard PBR's, but he rarely needed the 160-mile range for his special jaunts, and always kept his fuel to absolute minimum, usually about half a tank, to save additional weight. Or to add additional speed.
The muffler system had an exhaust change-out to release below the water line, making U-Boat extra quiet, even when running full open. The low engine rumble hidden beneath the gurgling, bubbling sound produced by the Jacuzzi system didn't carry far, even on open water. U-Boat, you're the real thing. I don't know what I ever did to deserve you, but I sure do hope I keep it up.
U-Boat represented Jason's only connection to a world he had been driven from through his own stupidity. In fact, he did know why he was granted these brief opportunities to apply his unique skills. It was an obvious utilization of talent called on as needed. But it was also wrapped in painful memories. He never went out on assignment without a miniumum of two support crew to cover the communications gear and the engine; sometimes more if required. These positions were generally filled by members of the multi-skilled SEAL Teams he transported; a rotating crew, but all cut from a similar mold of dependable talent. He cherished these assignments because he longed for recognition and acceptance from his lost compatriots.
"What about Susan?"
"What?" What do you mean 'What about Susan?' Where the fuck did that come from?* "What do you mean?"
Jason quickly pulled himself back to Dr. Bondurant's office, noticing that he could no longer hear the outside music. Either it had been turned off or the unique atmospheric conditions had changed.
"I mean, what about Susan? How does she fit into all of this? What are your thoughts about her? Is she an important part of your life?" Bondurant seemed unconcerned he had momentarily lost Jason.
"Oh, God. I don't know what to think about Susan." I don't know what to think about anybody, including me. "I don't know about Susan. She's my best friend. My only friend, I guess." Jeezus, this feels like a wet blanket drooping over me again.
"Describe for me your feelings about her right now."
"Right now, huh? Well, right now, I feel kind of distant from her. She's off doing her own thing."
"You mean she left? She went somewhere?"
"No, no. She's still here. I just mean we haven't been communicating very well lately. We went for a couple pretty long stretches without seeing each other. She's sort of off on her own cloud, now."
"And where are you, Jason? Are you off on your own cloud, too?"
"Yah, I guess so." God, I hate bringing other people into these garbage disposal meetings. I hate talking about this. "I guess we're not getting along so well right now."
"Well, as I recall, two months ago you weren't feeling so detached from her. What's happened in the last several weeks?"
Fuck. Why not? Just let it all hang out! "Well, I haven't been able to get it up for the last couple of weeks or so. We've just mostly been staying at our own houses. Actually, she was just over Saturday night for the first time in a while. But that didn't work out so well. We still talk on the phone every few days. That sort of screws up an intimate relationship, you know. I just haven't been able to do it. I don't know what's wrong. And the more I think about it, the more I worry about it, and the worse it gets. I guess there have been times like this in the past, sort of like cycles that I've gone through, where this happens for awhile. This is just another down cycle is all."
"I remember. I also remember that those were the times when you were more severely depressed than usual. What are you feeling depressed about right now?"
"Well, shit. Right now, I'm depressed about not being able to get a hard-on." God, that's a chicken-and-egg problem if I ever saw one! "I mean, who wouldn't be depressed?"
"Jason, I think we've covered some of this ground before. I've even admitted that when I've got a lot of things on my mind, it effects my sexual ability, too. It happens to everybody at some point or other. Getting depressed about it is an unnecessary part of a more or less normal, temporary sexual dysfunction. The question is, which came first; the depression or the sexual dysfunction?"
"My balls don't care, Doc. They ache either way. I can feel my heart beat throbbing in them when they get like this, just pounding away. Sort of makes me lose my sense of humor."
" 'Humor is good for what ails you', Jason. I'm glad you mentioned that. Jason, what have you been doing for fun?," Bondurant asked as he made a preliminary effort to gather up his notes.
"Fun? Uh, well, I don't know. I just sort of work around the house. That's sort of fun."
"But do you and Susan go out and dance or anything? You never mention things like that. What's something you do that most people would consider to be fun?"
"Naw. I don't like to dance. I don't know, Doc. I guess I don't really know what fun is anymore."
"Well, maybe for next time, you ought to think up at least two things that would be fun for you to do. OK? And maybe even give one of them a try just to see if it works. See you in eight weeks, around the first week of October." There was a slight twinge of a smile at the corners of Dr. Bondurant's mouth.
"Yah, O.K., Doc. I'll give it some thought," Jason said as he slowly moved out the office door. Jason told Dr. Bondurant good-bye and left his session feeling a little bit lighter, a little less depressed. Bondurant was good at making him think about how all his feelings tied together. Unfortunately, at times, that made them appear like a tangled ball of twine, impossible to unravel. But he was a little freer now. And he felt a strong sense of satisfaction. He had done what he said he would do. He had sat through the intensive interview sessions for the PTSD Clinic. Now he was back on his normal schedule. Now he could get on with his own plans.
He had a vacation coming up, starting this Friday. He hadn't mentioned it to Bondurant. He hadn't even mentioned it to Susan. He was finally going to resolve his situation. He only had three more days to put up with the day-to-day bullshit of just hanging around. I'll miss you, Doc, Jason thought as he left the building he knew he would never see again. I hope you have better luck with the others.
Jason ambled out of the building and into the parking lot in the early evening. He sat for a moment in his car, engine running, windows down, absorbing the lingering heat of the day. His head leaned back against the head-rest as he thought about what Dr. Bondurant had asked: "What do you do for fun, Jason?"
Fun. Shit. I haven't had any real fun in a damn long time. Fun. God, what I used to do for fun would blow Bondurant's socks off. He laughed to himself. Shit, it would blow my socks off, too. I couldn't do that kind of shit anymore, no matter how hard I tried. That's the kind of stuff that got me into this mess to begin with. Burned my system out...fried the old neurons and got the wiring all screwed up. Fun! You bet!!
Jason closed his eyes and rolled his head around, loosening up the kinks and tight muscles. Shit! A little sex would be fun. Seems like that system's burnt out, too! His hand slid to his crotch as he thought about his conversation with Dr. Bondurant and felt the dull, aching throb in his nuts, keeping time with his heart beat.
Hollow, thumping footsteps were coming down the wooden planking. Thump! Thump! Since the steps were mostly in unison, it was hard to tell exactly how many men were coming. But it wasn't a matter of quantity. It was quality. Those kind of steps could only be made by determined men, confident men, men with a mission and the will to carry it out.
The five men stepped silently aboard U-Boat. No one talked as they stowed their gear and each took a pre-determined spot along the shallow gunwale. This is one serious group. Let's get this show on the road.
The Team was dressed in a mix of uniforms: some Olive Drab and some camouflaged BDUs, dark T-shirts, blue jeans, sweaters, light jackets. All dark clothing. Two wore no hats; one wore a camo floppy, two wore helmets. Jason wore his black beret. No one wore insignias or statements of rank. No one wore the insignia of the Naval Special Warfare Unit, that magnificent crest with the flight-ready eagle. It was always worn on dress uniforms and some of the BDUs, but rarely in the bush. At least not on any of the trips Jason had taken. It held a special meaning for Jason, the eagle perched forward on an anchor, flint-lock pistol in one talon, trident in the other. Sea, Land and Air. With this group, as with all the others, there was no insignia necessary to realize they were a special Team. You could tell just by the way they all moved together.
They each carried aboard an armful of weaponry and bags of unknown items, all now neatly stowed in pre-assigned spots. Two of the canvas bags went directly into the small cabin space, handled lightly and lashed securely against the bulkhead.
The five faces were all painted with dark streaks. In full light , they would have been green. Now they looked like the blackened, sooty faces of Appalachian miners. No natural features were visible except the eyes. And the eyes were constantly moving. Nothing escaped their glances as their attention constantly moved from object to object, around U-Boat, around the docking area, and especially around the silent, cluttered harbor.
There is something special about eyes, and even more so about the eyes of a SEAL Team. Sometimes eyes convey messages, almost like ESP. With a Team, this was magnified tenfold. A questioning glance or a steady look to treeline could be enough to cause the entire Team to react. If there was something there, they would deal with it. If there wasn't, the eyes would glance around, silently signaling "OK. Good call. Keep sharp."
Jason met the five members of Detachment Gulf the previous afternoon at the briefing. They had all stared intently at the large wall map along with a pile of aerial photographs of specific sections of the waterways. All the photos had been taken within the last 24 hours. River flow patterns, obstacles jutting from shore or visible in the water were all carefully noted. Narrow passages. Areas wide enough to easily turn U-Boat around. Jason would have the specifics of the water route memorized within 30 minutes. He would make himself short notes and brief sketches of key spots and alternative routes, if there were any. He would note all the tight spots and potential danger points. He was the get-away driver, the only way in and out. He had to know the streets like the back of his hand.
During the briefing, Jason felt each member of the Team carefully scrutinizing him. He met the stare of each member, fixed eyes like arm wrestlers locked grips to feel the solidity of their competition. He answered with confidence all silent inquiries about his own capabilities.
Jason had been on several types of missions. Officially they were called insertions and extractions, taking a Team into the bush and bringing them back. Sometimes he would be given a location where a Team would go ashore, either from the water or directly onto land, and he would simply turn around and head back home. Sometimes he would be told a location where, almost to the second, a Team would be waiting for him, sometimes crashing out of the bush with gunfire close behind. Once in a while he could hear where that spot was from quite a ways off. That's when he felt like the Cavalry riding in to the rescue. He loved that feeling of being useful, of being dependable, of being appreciated and on time. Right in the nick of time.
Most missions required both insertion and extraction while the Team cleared an obstacle from the waterway with plastique explosives, or did a quick search of a designated area. Jason called these one-shots. One time he took a Team in to make a hit on some high ranking North Vietnamese officer spotted by an underground network and confirmed by aerial reconnaissance. That time, it had been a sit-and-wait role for him. For almost three hours he just waited in the bushes near his camouflaged and moored boat. It was mostly boring time. Until the Team came high-tailing it out of the bush, VC hot on their tails. That quickly took care of the boredom.
This mission would be another one-shot sit-and-wait. The Team would be going in to wire and blow a reported VC storage facility recently confirmed in a fly-over. It was not far from the river, but local VC traffic seemed to be heavy in the area and they expected to encounter resistance during the escapade. The storage area appeared to be a series of interconnected tunnels, with at least three entrances spotted and marked within a 50 meter area.
Most of his trips had been north out of Da Nang or Hue, into and beyond the DMZ. So would this one. They would be going 45 kilometers along the coast and up river, a total of 90 klicks round trip. Allowing for a little margin, he could do it on half a tank of fuel. He was loaded and ready with half a tank. The land activities were expected to take just over two hours, depending on the circumstances, and Jason was to sit and wait, covering their backs and guarding their only way home.
Except for the short distance up the coast, U-Boat would be "rigged for silent running", with its exhaust outputs re-engineered for release below water line. They would leave the harbor at 5 knots so as not to attract attention. Then he would open up the throttle for the short run to the back-water entrance.
As was typical, Jason went through his ass-backwards radio contact with Combat Assault Control. Everything said was the opposite of what was happening. Ah, the voice of the soggy SOG. What Special Operations Group wants, Special Operations Group gets. Especially the likes of me. Pretty damned cleaver scheme, doing everything backwards. That way, if something doesn't work out right, they can always say it was our fault for having got things turned around somehow. Damned cleaver folks, those soggies!
He followed the established procedure. "Radio check. Radio check. This is U-Boat with a radio check."
"U-Boat, this is tower with a radio check"
"Tower, U-Boat. Coming in to calm waters."
"U-Boat, the docking crew is ready." This indicated that the mission was clear to proceed and that the Team would be logged out and expected back as scheduled. If there had been a change in plans, or a postponement for some reason, the response would have been something like "U-Boat. Proceed. Will have staff officer standing by at your arrival." But this one was cleared. Now came the fun part.
By early afternoon, he would be returning with U-Boat, reporting to the Tower as if he were calling in a patrol assignment departure as they again neared Da Nang. Between then and now, they would be on radio silence. Unless the totally unlikely were to happen. But that was not part of U-Boat's nature. All of the activities involving U-Boat, regardless of the nature of the mission, were planned and executed smoothly, with no unexpected incidents. That was the special quality he brought to the party.
Jason stood steady on the coxswain's flat as the boat swung hard to port, tearing out its fourth stake-down cleat, and sped off down the river. He had just had a most unusual experience with a snake after shooting three Viet Cong. And in a dazzling and noisy display of Teamwork, the members of Detachment Gulf had returned to their landing site for extraction.
All five men were back on board, mission accomplished. Sporadic gun fire came from the trees along the bank behind him and to his left, with steady return fire from four of the five automatics on board. No one bothered with the 50-caliber. Another clean get-away, just the way I like 'em. Now, let's get this baby out of here, like pronto.
The brown water churned behind them as the twin Jacuzzi's pushed them down river, and U-Boat rose to its purch atop the water. Jason played back through his mind the visual images of the river, preparing for each bend and planning for each narrow section before they sped through it. The fly-over photos and map layout were fresh in his memory from the previous days' briefing and from their earlier, but slower, approach up river that morning.
As soon as U-Boat stabled out from the initial turn, the lieutenant pressed a combination of buttons on the pocket-sized radio transmitter he carried. A series of sharp explosions could be heard in the distance behind them, followed by the low rumble of multiple secondary explosions. They seemed to still be going off as the boat moved out of hearing range. Now was not the time to be strolling leisurely down the river listening to the sound effects.
"Yewwie!! Sounds like we got 'um, Lieutenant," said the man who lay sprawled on the deck near Jason's right leg.
"Right on!" was the only reply from the man on the fantail.
Jason shouted back over his shoulder in preparation for the series of bends and twists in the river they were approaching. "O.K., gang. Hang on tight, 'cause we're going to try to beat the cows home."
At that, his attention turned totally towards the narrow waterway, where the visibility would occasionally decrease to 20 or 30 feet because of the vegetation and a few sharp bends in the river. But Jason would try to hold their speed above 20 knots no matter what.
It was an eerie feeling to have the powerful engine rumbling and vibrating beneath his feet, but only a bubbling, whining noise to be heard. Jason knew even though it sounded a little loud to him, standing on the boat, the sound wouldn't carry far in the dense jungle they passed through.
Jason figured he was pushing 20 knots, right at the margins of what the river and the boat could handle. Faster than most Boatswain's would consider prudent. Pretty quick we got us a straight away comin' up. Then I'll open her up a bit and put some distance between us and all that racket back there. When they rounded the last bend, Jason moved the throttle forward, opening up as much of U-Boat's power as he knew he could handle.
As they rounded a bend and came into the straight section of the waterway, Jason's mind went into over-drive. About 30 yards ahead was a sampan with its bow pulled into the starboard shore. The rest of the 15-foot craft swung out into the river, virtually blocking their path. That left only 5 feet between the stern and the opposite bank.
Jason's mind immediately filled with computation and calculations, and in less than half a second he concluded a number of things: they couldn't fit between the stern of the sampan and the left back; they couldn't stop due to the nature of their mission, and the unknown nature of the sampan. No one was visible on the approaching boat or on either bank, at least from his perspective. The sampan was riding low in the water, probably weighted down by supplies. It appeared to be a rickety old fishing boat, weather-worn and otherwise nondescript. There was about 12 or 14 inches from the water line to the sampan's gunwales at dead-center, indicating a fairly heavy load of cargo on board. He couldn't go around it so he would have to go over it.
His own conclusion startled him. Mother fuck! What a crazy way to go! There just wasn't time for much deeper sentiment than that.
It was not particularly obvious, but it was fairly predictable, that what he was about to run into was a supply vessel for the local VC. No one else on board saw what lay ahead, or at least no one had shouted yet. There wouldn't be any time for discussion. He was the Boatswain. This was his call.
Just forward amidships, there was a tall, narrow cabin structure on the deck of the sampan, similar to the profile of his own superstructure, but taller and slimmer. Definitely a solid looking structure, and definitely unusual for a sampan, which always had its cabin and housing sitting well aft. This was unusually built - no apparent connection to the center cabin structure and the motor-and-rudder rig at the stern. Cabin amidships? A gun-port? His mind registered all these details, but kept calculating without stopping to evaluate trivials. All this was to his advantage at the moment. He would have to hit just aft of the deck structure and avoid that direct impact. He knew his prow was riding at least 12 inches out of the water because of the thrust provided by his inboards. His speed was roughly 30 knots and climbing.
His mind had virtually stopped all other activity outside of running continuously changing calculation on every detail of the situation. He had only one option if he wasn't going to stop. He would have to hit the wooden blockade almost dead center, just aft of its cabin with as much speed as possible. If all went well, U-Boat would go over the top. He was prepared to swing starboard as soon as they hit water on the other side, to take them back to the middle of the river. There were no engine propellers and with any luck at all his inset rudder and gate controls would clear the debris as they rode over the top.
What he didn't know was a number of minor details that he would never have time to determine until after the fact. Was this some kind of trap, pre-planned for his return trip down river? Did this sampan have any reinforcing along its framing? Could his own hull structure take such a serious impact?
A series of mental images flowed through his mind. They were about three seconds from discovering whether or not they would land on the other side of this sampan with all or even part of U-Boat's hull still intact, gracefully airborne - like after hitting a skid ramp. Alternatively, he could picture each individual hitting the water as the collision abruptly stopped their momentum and threw his passengers forward.
Jason turned his head back as far as he could without taking his eyes off the rapidly approaching obstacle. "Barge up ahead. Hold tight. Watch for fire from starboard."
Out of the corner of his eye he could see the lieutenant crouching at the stern, He had been looking forward and seemed to comprehend what Jason intended to do. His eyes widened. "What the hell......?," was all Jason heard as bodies scrambled around on the deck, everyone grabbing for something solid to hold onto. A quick glance back to his right revealed two SEALs holding on to the hull structure with their left hands, rifles over the side, wide eyes looking up at him like he was some kind of ghost.
"Pull in those guns!"
It all happened too quickly. Jason had committed and the gap had closed. They were going to hit the sampan just behind its cabin. There was still no one in sight and apparently they hadn't been heard yet. His hand leaned on the throttle, full forward now, but ready to pull it back as soon as they were over the top......if they made it over. He braced himself as best he could against the framing support on his right.
He hit the sampan exactly where he intended. There was a tremendous crack of splintering wood which did little to slow their forward momentum. God, I hope that wasn't us! Jason felt the boat lift under him as if they had just gone off a ski jump.
They went a little higher than Jason expected, which carried them further past the sampan before they hit the water again. That also brought them closer to the left bank than he intended. He pulled hard to starboard and drew back the throttle as they brushed the overhanging branches on the bank.
There had been an instant of engine roar and blowing jets as the tail section lifted out of the water, hardly noticeable over the sound of cracking and splintering wood. Following the splash and thump as U-Boat again settled into the water, everything was relatively quiet.
He was 25 yards past the sampan before he knew it. No one on board had fired. He had heard a brief yipe as one of the M-16's was knocked from the grip of the man at his right leg, its extended barrel hitting against the sampan cabin as they passed.
Jason pulled back on the throttle to a bare idle. The river was wide enough to turn around at this point. U-Boat was almost perpendicular to the river, bow at midstream. "Sir, do you want to go back?," he asked as he glanced to his right to survey the damage. Just then, shouts came from the bushes where the sampan had been beached. It was cleanly cut in half, taking on water surprisingly fast as the tips of both the fore and aft sections tilted upward, bending in toward the missing center section now well below the water line.
Someone stepped out of the bushes, firing an automatic rifle without aiming at anything. Jason wasn't even sure they had been spotted yet. The man on shore was firing directly across the river into the opposite bank, over the wreckage of his boat, shouting but not looking in their direction.
"Lieutenant? Should I bring her about? Want to hit 'em again?", Jason asked one more time. Two of the SEALs were now firing back toward the wreckage.
"No way, mister. Just get us the fuck home if this thing can still float!"
"No promises, Sir," Jason replied as he slammed the lever forward and felt the bow lift once again as the pumps thrust them forward. It was a full five seconds before the SEAL Team let out a series of hoots and hollers.
Jason felt a tug at his right pant leg. He looked down to see the look of wonder and amazement on the green-streaked face below him. "You're fucking crazy, man!!"
Jason shrugged. "Naw. Just havin' a little fun. Now we gotta see if we can make it home before the bottom falls off this thing."
The lieutenant came forward and swung around, then slid to a squatting position with his back against the canopy stanchion. He pulled his knees up to his chin, and craned his neck forward. He sat like that, thinking for half a minute before he said anything. "Orr, I didn't know this boat could DO something like that!!"
"I didn't either, Sir," Jason replied as the wind blew in his face. "But then, we learn things every day if we're lucky."
Except for an occasional pat on the back accompanied by some joking comment about checking his files for a valid drivers license or getting his eyes checked, there wasn't much said on the rest of the ride back into Da Nang. Once back in port, however, the rumors and exaggerated stories began to pick up pace. There was talk about sending him to kamikaze school and running the whole thing again so somebody could get it on camera. He got a kick out of how their ramming speed got faster and their airborne distance further, as the afternoon got later and the story was retold.
A few of the dock crew started calling him "Jumpin' Jason", with a new kind of respect in their eyes. He never did respond, refusing to add any details about a classified mission. But he never did hear anything official about the incident. It was just one of those things that happened on the river. U-Boat's hull was badly scraped up when he brought her in, but there were no cracks. The next time he saw her, she was painted up as good as new. Just like always.
He spent the rest of the afternoon avoiding people, sitting in the dock storage going over the events of the day, quelling the discomfort about his irrational reaction in the clearing. At 1800 hours, he flew back out to sea by chopper, to a destroyer providing gunfire support down the coast to the south.
Jason sat in his car in the parking lot across from the VA Hospital for a few
more minutes before heading home, remembering that split second before the
impact on the river that day as one of the most fun things he had ever done.
Those were exciting times, but he doubted Dr. Bondurant had anything like that
in mind when he had asked about having fun. And he knew he sure couldn't handle
something like that again. Not anymore. Not in his present condition.
To be continued...
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