"A Stroll in the Park"

By Stephen "Rags" Ragle

I stand back in the darkness of the tree line, staring across the clearing into the darkness on the other side. It is hot. The sun is bright in the clearing, but the thick canopy of the forest blocks it out. There is no breeze on the floor of the forest. The musty smell of decaying vegetation permeates the air. Nothing moves, nothing heard--except for my heavy breathing.

It's only about 10 a.m., but the temperature must be in the high 90s already; and the humidity is there with it. The solid olive-drab jungle utilities are soaked with sweat to below my knees; they cling to my body. The tee shirt is dripping with sweat; the socks in my jungle boots are soaked with sweat. I look over my shoulder--no movement, no sound. I feel them again, back there somewhere.

I stare back across the clearing--no movement, no sound. To the left, the clearing is empty for several hundred yards as it extends sharply uphill. To the right, a large clump of concentrated underbrush about chest high. Could be a good place for an ambush. The trail leads straight across the clearing. It is well-worn with no sign of disturbance. This path has always been friendly, but training and instinct tell me to always beware-- or is it my imagination.

I move quickly across the clearing and down the slight incline of the path, eyes scanning the upcoming tree line to the left and right continuously. I search the trail floor for any obstacles. I reach the tree line and turn and stare back--no movement, no sound. The trail turns left and starts heading up through the dense green forest. Each hill seems to get higher. I am only about two klicks from my destination.

I hear distant sounds. It must be heavy stuff. Sounds like 155s. Maybe twenty miles. Not my concern, must concentrate on the task at hand. The ground and the air feels like it shudders from the heavy artillery. I can also hear the sound of automatic-weapons fire and the slow staccato of what sounds like a 50 caliber. Sounds like a major battle in the distance. Not my concern.

I move down the trail trying to be silent. It has been so dry that every twig and leaf crunches under my boots. It grates on my nerves. The sounds are probably not as loud as I think, and the thick forest will absorb them. This is a friendly trail; there should be no problems, I tell myself.

I move through the forest, eyes constantly sweeping the trees and underbrush. My canteen is only about one-fourth full and sloshes as I walk. The sound seems thunderous. I know it is my imagination. I keep telling myself this trail is friendly; there should be no problems. Training and instincts die hard. The distant battle sounds can still be heard.

I am traveling along the side of a hill with thick forest all around. Green ferns and sparse vines cover the forest floor. The trail turns to the left along the hillside and goes into a draw about 200 feet. It makes a horseshoe turn and comes out on the other side of the draw. It is high and steep on both sides, another good place for an ambush.

I stop and peer into the trees on both sides, checking. I move along, cautiously checking the path; it is rocky, and the loose gravel slips under my feet. The distant sounds can still be heard, like a major offensive. I am only about one klick out. Won't be long now. I check behind me, still nothing to be heard or seen. Training and instincts die hard.

There are no forest sounds. No birds, just the buzzing insects around my head and my labored breathing. There should be bird sounds; maybe something has scared them. Probably me. I am paranoid I tell myself.

The heat is becoming unbearable, and I am just about out of water and energy. The sweat is dripping off of me. As long as I am sweating, I am not over heated; but I have to continue on.

I feel the forest closing in on me or is someone stalking me. It is the heat or my imagination; this is friendly trail. I stop and listen often. No sounds, but I can feel the forest closing in. The battle in the distance rages still.

I reach the crest of a hill; and the trail starts down. Only about a half a klick now and my destination. I stumble often from fatigue and the vines that grab at my jungle boots. I am making too much noise; but this is a friendly trail.

Finally! There is my destination. I have beaten them--the ghosts that were chasing me, the spectors of my imagination and past.

There is my truck at the trail's end. Still in the parking lot after a four-mile hike. The sounds of the training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, still going on about 20 miles southwest. With the wind blowing from that direction, it sounds loud.

This experience occurred during very hot weather late in June in Jefferson County Memorial Forest, which is about 5,000 acres of forest dedicated to the veterans of Jefferson County, Kentucky. While I was recovering from a liver transplant, I did a lot of hiking that summer; and my imagination and things from the past would sometimes take over.

Just a stroll in the park.

copyright 1994 by Stephen "Rags" Ragle, all rights reserved