This has not been professionally edited so I welcome feedback, criticism and suggestions. This is the first part of three stories, all connected. I started to write this one several years ago while watching Platoon for maybe 50th time. The scene when Elias is running in an underground tunnel struck me as odd since everything I had read described them as much smaller. I had toyed around with a few parts of the story, deleted a lot, scrapped it all, wrote more, and then just sort of let it poor out. It dawned on me that this could be practically a book on its own but it fits the theme of a bigger picture I kind of envision. Anyway, enjoy. And again, I welcome any and all feedback.
The watch said 9:48am. Bill immediately realized he had neglected the normal tear of black electrical tape that covered his illuminated watch, a small detail that seemed minuscule but could lead to the loss of his head. He began frantically looking for it, while simultaneously and unconsciously covering the watch with his right hand. On his knees and elbows, he quietly felt blindly with his left hand, inching in a confined space permitting only forward or backward movement, until he fell head first into an unknown abyss. A pungee trap. Bill held his breath, waiting for the sharpened bamboo poles to penetrate his skin. This was it, the final moments, the end of it all. Life being foreclosed on by something as stupid as forgetting to cover his damn watch face. Any time now.
After the waiting seemed endless Bill concentrated on his breathing, and let the air attempt to calm his body as it permeated his lungs, and slowly spread outward through his nostrils.
Focus. Breathe. Focus. Breathe.
He flew from the jungle and landed on his bedroom floor, waking up for maybe a third time, finally realizing he was home. Bill let out a sigh, rested his face in his palms, and nodded his head as sense was made. “I’m home. This is my room. I’m on the floor.”
He found his cigarettes on the night stand and shook one out, slowly placed it between his lips, and snagged the zippo loyally resting next to the rumpled pack. His thumb instinctively caressed the letters engraved on the lighter spelling the name Paul S Maschino.
A Sau Valley, April of 1966. Bill felt the memory through his bones. The notorious mile-wide NVA sanctuary haunted many men before, during, and after battles, confirming all fears and killing any perceived warmth. Bill’s platoon had been tasked with assessing the damage of a Special Forces camp that had been overrun, all knowing damn well that any remnants of American life were long gone.
They had stumbled upon a peculiar looking tree, her enormous trunk and legs overtaking a hill as home, and her back blending into the mist covered mountain range. The massive old lady lurched over her twelve, three, and nine with her hands and hair shielding ghosts from any possibility of sunlight, and taunting the living with deceiving comfort from the evil jungle. She had secrets, no doubt about it.
Their platoon setup camp 100 yards outside of the witching lady’s home. Sarge had been setting up a claymore mine when he’d nearly tumbled into a hole, excitedly calling attention with an adrenaline laced reaction. After some investigating it was confirmed to be a tunnel entrance about five yards deep, with two paths opposite of one another at the bottom. After conferencing with the LT in hushed tones and suspenseful stares, Sarge rejoined the amassed crowd around the hole. Bill’s stomach twisted and bottomed out, his face flushing and head getting dizzy. He knew what would be coming next and the anticipation nearly left him incapacitated.
At 5’6” with a wiry and scrawny frame, Bill had become the designated Tunnel Rat of his platoon. The brass would tell anyone that asked that he had bravely volunteered, but any ground humping soldier would call that a boldfaced lie. It didn’t matter, though. What bothered Bill the most was his physiological reaction every damned time this happened. There was an internal conflict between his mind and body, a battle his mind seemed to always win, but not before being shot, tortured, and narrowly fleeing the enemy grasp. It was a war within a war being fought in a war. There was no escape.
The first exploration of the tunnel was always an attempt to assess the unknown, a ridiculous and futile ritual that never provided any fruitful intelligence. This time was no different. Bill crawled about 15 yards into the south entrance that dug to the evil Mother Tree, equipped with only his flashlight, wit, and wars. The dark, black emptiness took over everything in and around it, a sensory deprivation chamber testing his psychological wherewithal and challenging all emotions. Bill turned off the flashlight to let his other senses try to take over. Any hint of irregularity was absolutely crucial to his survival and required 100% dedicated focus, something not easily attained by someone way too familiar with the ghosts that lived in the darkness. They begged for his attention, poking and whispering to him, aching for him to heal their loneliness and desperation. But Bill was now indifferent to the ghosts, a final transition from fear and sadness. Sometimes he even welcomed and talked to them, a reprieve from the tortuous reality. The ghosts sometimes helped him fight the wars.
As the black enveloped him and the ghosts let his senses takeover, Bill smelled smoke. The stagnating, tart and bitter smell was undeniable and certainly not stale. He felt his heart pound under his chest and the pressure of the ground above him, the fear leaking out of his pores and hands and feet. His pulsating blood felt like it was echoing throughout the tunnel, ready to scream any second. He wasn’t alone.
When Bill climbed out of the tunnel his face required no explanation of the anxiety. “I smelled smoke,” he said, his hands resting on his knees and eyes looking at nothing towards the ground as they became reacquainted to the light. “Tobacco smoke. Not old, not new, but someone’s either down there or went through that thing pretty recently.” His hands and arms began to shake and buckle, and he noticed a few rocks by his right foot. Bill instinctively picked them up and placed them in the right pocket of his OG 107 shirt.
“Which tunnel,” Sarge asked, his mouth remaining open and eyes trying to look stoic. “The north or south one?”
“South. The one heading towards that spooky fucking tree.”
Sarge looked at him and finally closed his mouth, knowing that Bill knew what was coming next, but he said it anyway. “I need you to check the north one before I send you down further, man.” He shook his head and put his hands on his hips, the telltale sign that more bullshit was about to spew from his thinned lipped, mustached mouth, the peach fuzz standing out amongst the maturing whiskers. He looked twelve years old in the faint light. “If I send you further south your six may not be secure.”
Yep, bullshit. Secure? What’s secure about any of this shit, man? It wasn’t that Bill didn’t want to investigate the north entrance; there was no realistic way of telling where the smoke had come from and the unknown just fueled one of the internal wars. There was also the fact that the north entrance lead away from that gnarly tree siren, so it felt the safer option of the two. No, what really bothered Bill was the justifying bullshit. Just more of the “same-same”, usually followed with “It ain’t nothing” by the receiving party, a go-to grunt phrase for “fuck it”. Trying to find the known in the unknown, cracks within shattered glass, shadows in permanent darkness. “That’s what all of this war is, man,” Bill thought. “You can’t make sense of any of it.”
“I’m taking the Colt this time,” Bill said, referring to the M1911 handgun, his only saving grace in any of the justifying crap governing his honorable position of Tunnel Rat. Sarge nodded. The others just stared at him as if foretelling his death, silently saying goodbye and wishing him good luck with the ghosts. The wave of silence wreaked of projected fear.
Bill crawled on his elbows towards the big, black empty, then paused once the light escaped. He turned on the flashlight and accidentally blinded himself, shaking his head rapidly and audibly cursing. He stood up pressing his arms outward. They grasped at the air, aimlessly moving around in their new found freedom. He had drifted off again. He turned on a light this time. The ghosts scattered and faded with the black. Bill had to get out of their, too.
It must have been Saturday. He smelled bacon and knew that dad was cooking breakfast, something he only did during the weekend. Bill started to trek out of the basement, kicking over empty beer bottles and stepping on crumpled letters he had written but could never finish. They were now fragments of history left in clues of broken thoughts, childish promises, and tainted dreams.
The door at the top of the stares looked ominous and unattainable. The leaking light etched out of the bottom and sides, and the sounds of life going on without him made his stomach twirl and head feel faintish. The stairs and it’s path were dark, cold, and dreary, like the tunnel he now lived in. The wars would never cease. There was no leaving them and Bill had accepted that fact. The ghosts welcomed his wars.
There was an ending of the north tunnel but Bill couldn’t tell if it was dead or not. The light from his flashlight blunted and faintly splashed when directed straight forward. It had to be about 30 yards ahead.
If he crawled backward and left the tunnel, he knew they would just ask more stupid questions that they all knew had no answers, and then send him right back down to find the unknown answers to the pointless questions. If he continued he could die, the only answer any of them knew was real, but acknowledging reality was long lost in this war. Hope for the improbable was always the answer in all the flawed logic. Bill realized that continuing required less effort and anguish, and he was just too damned tired, too damned cold, and too damned immune to the ghosts to care. It ain’t nothing.
As he inched his way forward Bill tried to simultaneously focus on what he could smell. The air was saturated with earthy and musky scents, a sourness and bitter sweetness as they blended with his own body odor. He knew the smells would soon be forgotten as his senses became habituated so he paused, turned off the flashlight, and focused.
Breath. Focus. Breath. Focus.
Mom, dad, and Timmy were sitting at the table, their eyes focused on eggs, the paper, and the back of a cereal box respectively. They glanced at Bill briefly but quickly returned to their aimless duties. Timmy looked so young, so naive, and so clean. He had wanted so badly for Bill to go fishing with him and run through the woods, to go relive moments of their childhood. At three years apart Timmy looked like a younger version of Bill, his coal colored hair and green eyes a mirror of his own. The age differences were barely recognizable before the war but now stood out like red in a sea of blue.
Bill still loved him. Timmy had written many times, the letters full of home happenings and future plans. Bill had at first responded excitedly and timely, but then the war happened and the war spawned other wars, and those wars birthed more wars, and eventually all the wars saturated him until there was nothing but wars. A buddy of Bill’s at Fort Campbell had told him that he knew three people that weren’t sent to The Shit because they were “only son’s”, no male siblings younger or older. Bill had forgotten about it until the wars started to take over. A faint resentment slowly became prominent no matter how hard he fought it, becoming another one of the many battles he now lived in. He just couldn’t tell Timmy he still loved him, but he did.
“I’m going to head out soon,” Bill suddenly blurted out, his eyes fixated on a ceramic cup and right hand nervously fidgeting with Paul S Maschino’s zippo in his pocket. They just stared at him, the silence thick, just like the soldiers before he went tunnel diving. The tension was saturated with sadness, like a grey cloud taking over what was at first a sunny and happy morning. This cloud seemed to follow Bill everywhere now. The ghosts couldn’t go with him without it, and Bill had become a ghost in this life. The cold, dark, and empty basement called his name.
As Bill peered down the stairs and shut the door behind him, a battle roared within. He had to leave the house, he knew it, but his body just couldn’t gain the strength to move into the light. He crept down the steps, the ghosts now coming out to play with other friends, cheering each other on as they pulled Bill deeper into the tunnel. How could he deny them attention? He owed them his life, a bargaining chip they never let him forget.
Bill could now see light escape downward to another part of the tunnel when the flashlight was directed forward. He was maybe five yards from the hole that probably fed into a larger section. There was a sudden feeling of admiration for the ingenuity and dedication of the tunnel laborers. Bill pictured them as little ants, painstakingly digging and fortifying and digging and fortifying, tirelessly and devotedly working until their underground fortress was secured and approved. The floor felt solid, cool, and smooth.
When Bill was about two yards away from the hole he stopped to contemplate his options. He could hover over and shine the flashlight down to get a full glimpse but that could be very deadly. Bob Schneider, one of the ghosts that Bill lived with, had his head blown into smashed puzzle pieces when he poked it down a similar hole. They were exploring a man-made cave a few patrols back and Schneider was a loyal soldier that did what good soldiers were told to do. An NVA soldier was awaiting with an AK-47. Bill was pretty sure Schneider was happy that he kept his head after he died, forever 19 years old and devoid of physical scars as a ghost. Bill sure as hell was happy about it.
He blinked his eyes a few times and then remembered the rocks. Elated, he mentally patted himself on the back and a smile invaded one of the wars. He placed the Colt in front of him to free his right hand, and pulled out one of the rocks from his shirt pocket. Pausing again, Bill outlined the potential outcomes of throwing the rock down the hole. The rendered sounds of the rock after being thrown could tell him several things he desperately needed know. Was their a splash? Did it bounce? Was there an echo? Was the landing a dull thud or a metallic clang? Were there multiple landings? With his elbow on the tunnel floor and his arm extended upward, he measured the permissible range he had. There was maybe a foot of available space above his clamped fist, so he inched forward a bit more, turned the flashlight off and placed it near the Colt, and tried to devote all his energy to the rock. When it left his opened hand he pictured it penetrating the dead air and eerie space, trying to will it towards an unknown destination to give him some sort of reassurance there was an answer. He heard a dull thud, then a subtle scraping sound, and then another dull thud. Then nothing. He replayed the sounds in his head over and over again, then felt his eyes widen. His mouth was agape, dry and desperate, and trying not to allow his body to breathe. His tongue clamped to its roof, forcing air to retreat out the nose. His heart thumped so hard he could feel it vibrating his teeth. The fight was intense and his mind was losing.
Bill felt a cold, intense pressure on his left shoulder and his body instinctively shuttered, forcing him to shift completely to his right side. His right elbow, right hip, and right leg the only parts of him that now burrowed into the tunnel floor.
The color of the bullets being fired to his left illuminated everything around him, and the sounds deafened him instantly. The disheveled black hair, bright teeth, and the whites of the angry eyes firing the AK-47 flashed on and off like a strobe light. The soldiers face contorted in an evil yet scared battle cry, confident he was about to murder him but afraid of the unknown. It was an ironic fate they both shared, an improbable situation in any other life but this one.
Bill slammed the rifle down with his left arm, lunged his body down and forward, and wrapped his right arm around the back of the soldiers head. It was pitch black again, and the ringing in his ears stabbed his brain and blocked any other sound. They pushed, pressed, grabbed, and scratched, their bodies dancing together with death. Two flies struggling in the web of a nightmare come true, both wanting to wake up but knowing the spider wouldn’t let both escape.
Bill felt a bite on his right thumb and an arm frantically trying to get out from under him. He pushed the soldiers head downward into the edge of the hole and shifted as much pressure as he could on top of it, feeling his own body start to familiarize itself with the entrance of the hole the brave fighter emerged from. The adrenaline of his foe must have given his body a shot of strength as it pushed upward and back, forcing Bill’s shoulders to hit the tunnel ceiling and inch slightly forward. Bill kept his right arm tightly around his enemy’s neck and let his left arm join it, pushing all of his strength to counter the opposing force. He started to feel uneven vibrations on his forearm that were persistent but progressively getting weaker. The soldier was regurgitating, fighting for breath and desperately trying to untangle from the pretzel their bodies had morphed into. Then there was a collapse, a few inches of pressure relieved, and a slow and faint bubble felt drifting from one end to the other of Bill’s arm. He visualized the life leaving the body of his enemy, scared and trembling and weary. The ghosts would let him join Bill’s other wars.
Bill dragged the body back towards the tunnel entrance. It was an awkward, challenging effort. When the light of the tunnel entrance provided some reprieve of the darkness he stopped to catch his breath, then yelled out, “I’m clear. I got the smoker.” He heard the cheers and yells and chaos in jumbled muffles, his ears still clogged with ringing. Bill looked down and saw that his dead acquaintance was grasping the Colt, something he must have found when struggling under his body. Bill cursed himself, shaking his head, marveling at how lucky he was to escape the web. He decided to go through the soldiers belongings before it all disappeared. There was a journal, some rice balled up in seaweed wrappers, and a zippo with some engravings on it. He held the zippo up towards the light and read the name: Paul S Maschino.
The cling and clang of the zippo opening and shutting brought Bill back home again. He was sitting on a step in the middle of the stairs, peering into nothing while unconsciously fidgeting with the lighter. Maybe the ghosts would help him find Paul’s family. It was a purpose, a mission, something they could all relate to. He looked at his watch again. It was 10:05am.