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 Three Tower. He bounced up and ran again as fast as he could. An enemy assault might already be underway. He had to get into the trench before the next series of rounds were loaded and fired. Three Tower’s outline rose against the fiery sky directly before him. Beneath him his legs stretched and strained. Hurdling the crest of the hill, he was only a few strides away from the trench when he heard another mortar round’s screaming trajectory homing in. With all the strength he could muster he leaped for the safe haven of the trench. Once again he had timed his landing with the explosion of an artillery round. Although the mortar round did not create as much havoc as the rocket had, it was close enough to shake the earth underneath him. The second round landed further into the heart of Tropo Hill. The enemy had found the range and was now prepared to lambaste his target with everything he had. A third rocket roared overhead, higher yet than the others, overshooting Tropo Hill completely. It was headed for the airbase.

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.

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