The Edge of Silence
On the Feast of the First Morning of the First Day, in the Year of the Monkey, 1968, North Vietnam’s wildcat soldiers—many dressed in pale shirts with pleated pockets, button-downed trousers, and wearing sun-helmets or jungle hats—attacked South Vietnam.
Bullets and tracers cracked the silent sky; grenades and mortar fire shook the earth.
Thousands of Americans in hundreds of cities, towns, and villages, faced ever-growing waves of gritty soldiers trying to provoke citizens in the south into overthrowing their own government and siding with Ho Chi Minh and his Communist regime.
It did not happen.
What did happen, however, was a bloody mess: More than 40,000 Viet Cong died, along with 7,000-plus Americans.
I was not in-country during that brutal battle, known as the Tet Offensive. I showed up later.
In 1971, I was given guard duty at the end of a runway at Da Nang Airbase—a runway that had been overrun during Tet.
The night-watch lasted four hours. It was deadly dark. Menacing. On the edge of the jungle—a stone’s throw from hell.
I was alone.
It crossed my mind that somebody was out there. Watching me. From the other side. (Of course they were. Why wouldn’t they be? They were doing their job—like I was doing mine.)
Nighttime creeps me out. Haunts me. Especially that night. Gloomy thoughts conjured up layers of fear, anxiety, and dread. I didn’t need that. Not one bit.
I was wearing a helmet and flack jacket along with my uniform-of-the-day. My weapon: an M1911, Automatic Colt Pistol. The barrel was rusty; sand had found its way into the detachable magazine.
Nobody ever taught me how to shoot a 45—let alone dismantle and clean it. Didn’t really matter. I was told not to load my pistol unless ordered to do so. And, if so ordered, not to shoot unless given an official OK. Good thing, too, because (given the rust and sand) the dang gun would have exploded in my face.
About two hours into the watch, I got paranoid—trees became stalking solders; shifting ground-grass transformed into a dangerous threat. My breathing sounded like labored gasps from a faulty fireplace-bellows; my heartbeats reverberated like hollow thumps rumbling through a defective drum.
At some point I put my hands in my pocket and was surprised to find the harmonica I’d used the night before to play for drinks at the on-base saloon. Of course I wouldn’t play the harmonica out here. Not on watch. For one thing, the sound would call attention to me; for another, the shiny metallic top and bottom plates would make a great target for sharp-shooters.
Playing would be a suicide move.
Eventually, boredom, fear, and dread teamed up to form a strange euphoric alliance. Pragmatic. Morbid. Sinisterly re-assuring. I took out my harmonica and played a sultry blues riff. Panic melted away. Terror took a trip. Apprehension dissipated into wistful puffs, like ghostly smoke leaving a dying fire.
Better target for a sniper? Sure. But I figured I’d rather take a kill-shot than suffer a shattered arm or leg.
Silence sauntered away that night. Quiet as a bug. Far away from my one-man parade—drifting through a stream of blue notes and caressed by a soft, summer breeze.