A Culpable Innocence
Chapter 12: TET—Year of the Monkey (pg. 177)
At the first sound of distant thuds, Regis rose from his bunk, fully alert. Mortar rounds were exploding, like car doors slamming close outside one’s bedroom window, but distant, disembodied of the whistling entry noise they made when landing close by—“Pop . . . pop . . . pop . . .”—they were falling with regularity everywhere, landing in a semi-circle encompassing Artillery Hill to the west, Camp Schmidt to the north, Engineer Hill to the northeast, and the Pleiku airbase to the east. Regis flew into action, slipping the bandoliers crosswise over his shoulders, picking up his helmet and M14 in one motion as he ran for the door. He was past the threshold when the ear-shattering bass roar of an overhead rocket resonated through the wooden barrack and his very bones. It was closing in like a fifty-ton freight train. With one hand on the second floor railing he leaped over it. He landed faced down, spread eagled, in one of the drainage ditches at the same time as the rocket exploded. The concussion blew over the ditch with tremendous force, bounced Regis as the earth beneath him expanded and contracted, and pelted him with falling debris. His ears were ringing, adrenaline fired his muscles, but his consciousness was outside his body. He was watching himself as he checked his body for wounds and looked for his helmet which he had lost in the fall. The sky was alight with the orange-tinged, flickering glow of illumination flares and crisscrossed with the fizzling sparkle of tracer fire. The U.S. response had begun. The “rat-a-tat-tat” of machine guns indicated U.S. installations were already under ground assault or at least believed they were. The Pleiku alarm siren finally blared its warning in a belated attempt to alert the U.S. bases, and all installation lights went dark.
Regis had not been injured by
the fall or shrapnel, although he was covered in dirt from the clods unearthed
by the rocket. It had buried itself about 30 feet away before exploding. A delayed detonator, Regis told himself.
He had been lucky. He clambered out of the ditch, put on his helmet, and
staggered into an awkward run. Halfway to Three Tower he heard the
deep-throated roar of another rocket overhead, higher than the first. He dove
into the ditch that bordered the walkway. As he did so, he heard a crashing
sound and the scatter of metal objects, followed by a partly muffled explosion.
The rocket must have hit something in its path, cleared Tropo
Hill, and exploded on the far hillside or in the valley below. He picked
himself up in order to resume his dash to the perimeter when he heard the more
familiar whistling sounds of incoming mortar rounds. Two landed in quick
succession just at the edge of Tropo Hill on its northeast
side—in the direction he was headed. He hurried with an increased sense of
urgency to get to his defensive position. What immediately occurred to him was
that there were at least two mortar firing positions aimed at his installation
and they were targeting that very patch of the perimeter his squad was assigned
to defend. He ran as fast as he could before he had to dive again for cover.
Two more rounds landed a bit closer and very near
Regis scrambled to locate his helmet again and ready himself to fire his weapon when he realized he was not alone in the trench. Expecting one of his squad members, he was shocked to find a nearly naked Vietnamese man on the other end of the trench. The man was wearing nothing but sandals and shorts and had a package or something strapped to his bare back. He was as alarmed and surprised to see Regis as Regis was to see him, and for the same reasons. They were not only confronting each other in combat, but for the second time. He was the same man Regis had faced at Tam’s house. The spell that had locked their eyes onto each other was broken in the next instant. Regis raised his M14 barrel and his antagonist whipped out a knife. But Regis had failed to load a magazine in his weapon. The man noticed Regis’ predicament, but instead of rushing him, he scampered out of the trench and started running in the direction of the command bunker. As he turned his back on Regis, the satchel charges he carried became recognizable.