Chapter 11 An Efficacious Rat
The sun sank into the South China Sea like the yoke of some dreary egg. The hills surrounding Third Tracs took on a smoky and insubstantial quality, as if reconsidering the advisability of existence. The battalion tensed into an uneasy alertness. HQ was expecting a major attack. Colonel Droningkeit doubled the guard, and then sat in his hooch and gazed irritably at an estimate from intelligence. He never could understand the goddamned things. This one seemed to say that there would be an attack, and it seemed to say that there wouldn’t be an attack.
Sometimes he wondered whether he was smart enough for this business. Every time he went to the Inte1 shop, they showed him maps that had the same four VC units listed in four different places. When he asked how this was possible, that Ivy League colonel, Toute or Toute or something, always said, “But this, you understand, is a topographical map, and this one has little red lines in the corners. See? It takes a while. You get used to it.”
Colonel Droningkeit never did.
That night Corporal Hearn and Larry were again atop Old Motherfucker, their duly appointed amtrac, this time with a sandbagged machine gun. Happy Valley stretched black before them, cherry tracers leaping silently in the distance. Corporal Beans was off somewhere in a machine-gun bunker. He pulled a lot of guard duty because guards didn’t have to speak English.
“Scared, Hearn?” asked Larry, crouched down behind the raised hatch coaming. He kept his cigarette on the hatch ledge, out of sight, and stuck his head through the hatch to take a drag.
“No. Not really. They won’t hit us. They can’t afford to.”
“What you mean?”
Hearn stared into the blackness of the valley. Mortar flares as usual shivered in the clouds. A few amtracs coughed into life, ready to charge an attacking enemy. They rumbled hollowly in the nervous evening, belching greasy smoke, as safeties clicked off along the wire and searchlights stabbed the night.
“I figure amtracs keep their morale up,” said Hearn thoughtfully.
“Bull …You reckon?”
“Sure. Don’t think so? If you were Charlie, wouldn’t you like to watch the bad guys driving a thirty-seven ton mine-detector with the gas tank in the bottom? A real giggle. Bet the fucking gooks sell tickets to sit in the mountains in the morning and watch us blow up. You know, like R-and-R. Do a good job, and you get to drink beer, kick back, and watch a few tracs blow up.”
“Oh, hell. You don’t really believe that, do you?”
“You don’t really disbelieve it, do you?”.
Larry thought about it. Yeah, it made sense. Or maybe it didn’t. The distinction did not seem as clear as it once had. Hearn pressed his advantage.
“I mean, if you were a dink sapper and risked your ass day after day just to blow up a damn bread truck or something, you’d get discouraged, right? Boom, and nothing but fucking bread crumbs. But if you could watch a P-5 go up, ker-blam, guys running around on fire and great big flames and shit, you’d stay in the war. Just for the hell of it. I figure we’re like Bob Hope for the gooks.”
Larry retracted his head beneath the sandbag line as a spent bullet fzzzzzzzed overhead. Funny thing about this war, he thought: Most people who got hit weren’t being shot at.
“Yeah, shit. Maybe we could show’em a hoochee-coochee show instead. You ever see how crazy a dink goes when he looks at a Playboy? They never seen tits like that.”
Forty yards to their left Corporal Beans Lopez waited in the darkness behind the machine gun in his bunker. The air in the bunker was close, the evening muggy. Beans peered at the distant ring of mortar flares through the holes in the sheet of beach matting that hung down from the overhang of the bunker to keep grenades out. It looked like rows and rows of portholes.
Beans understood dimly that he was to shoot anyone who tried to come through the wire. It seemed to him a reasonable thing to do, or at least no more unreasonable than anything else.
Whatever this war was about, a question that still tugged occasionally at his consciousness, it made sense that people had to be shot, or else it wouldn’t be a war. He thought about Rosita, his three-year-old sister in Saltillo, and wondered whether he would see her again. Dios, it would be good to watch Rosita chasing through the cholla, all dark eyes and plump churning little legs, and watch the purple dusk come over the desert and……
Something clinked in the wire. Beans jerked into full alertness. Hijo de la chingada. Someone was out there?
Sí, indeed. Someone was.
Well then, he, Beans, would shoot the maricón. That was easy. Being a Spanish-speaking Marine in an English-speaking Corps, Beans was happiest on those rare occasions when he knew what he was expected to do. He swiveled the M-60 toward the sound, waited for it to come again, and opened fire.
Braprapraprap. Tracers flew in startling pink brightness and ricocheted crazily from the earth. The noise was terrific.
“Hay Japoneses en el alambre” roared Beans. His understanding of the origins and participants in the war was still hazy.
The next bunker quickly opened up, spraying more tracers at the impact point of Beans’ tracers. The new bunker didn’t know what it was shooting at either, but figured that, whatever it was, it was probably where Beans was shooting. Beans felt confirmed in his judgement that he was being attacked, since the other bunker was shooting the same intruder.
The firefight developed rapidly. Marines in rifle pits added to the din with M-14s. Whooom! A grenade detonated in a violent orange flash.
“Ammo! We need ammo!” came a cry along the line after a few minutes of frantic combat. Daring Marines streaked for the magazines. A hell of an attack was underway. There came the heavy buddha-buddha-buddha of fifty caliber machine guns. Pandemonium reigned. The tracers were almost sheets of electric pink flame.
“Jesus, you see anything?” yelled Larry over the din. He was feeding the machine gun for Hearn. Brass from the gun sprayed from the chamber, clinked against the armor, and fell to the ground.
“Naw! Must be in the bushes, though,” roared Hearn, crazily hosing the distant foliage while keeping his head barely above the sandbags. The gun jerked and shook. “Shit! I didn’t think they’d really come!”
Fire erupted from bunkers on the other side of the camp as gunners opened up at deep shadows that seemed closer to the perimeter than they had been before. In the commo bunker, Colonel Droningkeit was calling on the radio, “Firebase Bravo, Firebase Bravo, this is Dream 35. We are under attack, repeat under heavy attack. Immediate barrage requested along main Happy Valley axis. This is a tactical emergency.”
Shortly the boom, roar, and wham of 105s began. Huge orange flashes erupted on the exposed slopes.
“Keep firing!” Colonel Droningkeit screamed, running along the wire to encourage his men. “They can’t take this long. Keep up the pressure.” He sprinted toward the other side of the camp to check on the progress of the fight.
The battle raged on. Helicopters began to lift off at the airfield, gunships coming to investigate. An AC-130 gunship, a transport made into a mass of guns, began warming up. Third Tracs was in danger of being overrun, the pilot was told on his radio. Charlie had to be stopped. The US couldn’t afford to lose this one. The hospitals prepared to minister to mangled casualties that must come, although as yet none had.
Down by the motor pool, Anesthesia sat in the back of his six-by, smoking and listening. He basked in a warm glow of philosophic satisfaction. The original target of the massed firepower of the base, a rat with a beer can tied to its tail, had long since taken shelter in a hole.
“Hoo! Dem wide folks fighten like hell. Pertecten democracy! Now maybe that muhfuggen colonel get his ass roasted. Man! I done built me a torpedo rat! Shee-it. Invented its ass.”
It was the fifth torpedo rat he had dispatched in two weeks, and each had caused a spectacular firefight. He dropped half a sandwich to his new rat in the 50-cal. can and lit another cigarette.