Forty-six years ago this month, this week, I was a combat engineer serving in the Republic of Vietnam.
A year earlier, I was a high school student without a care in the world, and eager to graduate so that I could get on with my own life. Be my own boss. You remember what that was like, don’t you?
You might say my path to manhood was ironic. I had yet to grow up about some things in life, and I ended up learning important lessons on dirt roads.
My squad’s mission was to sweep for mines on a two-lane dirt road laughingly referred to as Highway 22. We would get up at first light and haul our heavy mine-detection equipment out and take a stroll down that reddish dirt road until we finished, usually at noon.
The VC, who watched our every move from hidey holes, enjoyed putting “Bouncing Betty’s” beneath piles of buffalo shit as they knew the odor offended our Western sensibilities. The hoped we’d pass over the putrid piles rather than bother disturbing them. I never saw the trick work, but heard it did somewhere else from guys in other units.
I can tell you that it was no fun probing for live bombs with a bayonet in a stinky mess. I got use to it however, as I got use to everything in that alien world somewhere in the Central Highlands that spring. How I managed remains a mystery to me today.
Army units were assigned to provide us security. men, and sometimes a tank, would accompany us as we walked along swinging those heavy and bulky mine detectors.
Charlie knew how to hide during the day.
He just burrowed down into the ground and waited for darkness. Hoping that the mines he set during the night would kill some invaders that day. Sometimes I imagined his eyes following me. Patiently watching. Hoping to see me become a causality.
I stepped on a mine one day because I'd turned my earphones down ( I had a throbbing headache from too much drinking the night before) so low it was practically off while shortening my sweep radius.
The earth stopped as my squad leader shouted and gestured wildly at me. I looked down and realized I'd stepped onto a small depression (a bad sign) and froze.
It hit me that I was standing on a mine as the sergeant came up to me, kneeled down, and carefully probed around the area. He slowly traced around the perimeter of a pressure plate.
Time was meaningless. Sweat poured off my brow, urine ran down my leg, as I strained to recognize what kind of mine would be exposed.
The sergeant said “French make.” That meant it would take at least 1000 pounds on the pressure plate to set it off. It was safe for me to move.
I felt like throwing up, but the sensation passed after awhile.
Stop by here tomorrow for Part II of this slice of my life.
Time for me to walk on down the road...