I’ve kept my mouth shut for almost 50 years, why the hell would I start talkin’ now. Well friends, terminal cancer will do that to you. Shit you thought you’d take to the grave suddenly becomes shit you desperately wanna tell someone … anyone. I won’t bore you with a long lament about my time in Vietnam, it was shitty, it was shitty for everyone involved, it was particularly shitty for me as I was 5’3.
If you don’t know what being particularly short during the Vietnam war entailed let me fill you in, you arrive in country and a senior officer points at you and says “You’d be a good fit for the tunnel commandos, wanna join?”. Now technically it’s a question, as service in those platoons was voluntary, but it sure as shit didn’t feel like a question… it felt like an order.
And so that was my burden for the war, to be a “Tunnel Rat”, climbing down into deep, dank, dangerous tunnels filled with people and animals who wanted to kill me. Usually we operated in the huge “Cu Chi” tunnel complex near Saigon, but not on that day, on that day we were ordered to investigate a tunnel complex way up north, west of Da Nang. Two of us were sent into the tunnel that day, myself and Benoit. Now usually black guys managed to avoid becoming “tunnel rats” on account of them being so tall, but Benoit was burdened with the double misfortune of being short and black during the Vietnam war, a curse I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
I was first into the hole and Benoit followed, we both had our Model 39’s, some c4, our wits and not much else. If you’re wondering why we carried the small caliber Model 39’s, go fire a Colt .45 in a narrow tunnel and come back to me, the last guy who tried that got a ticket home with blood pouring out of his ears.
We crawled for what felt like an age, the tunnel was a tight fit, which meant it was probably freshly dug, it also stank something foul, that usually meant either spoiled food or some poor VC bastard died down there and was left to rot.
After about 40 minutes of crawling in total silence I saw the tunnel ahead open into a room, I tapped Benoit on the head with my foot, I heard him ready his pistol. I climbed down into the open chamber pointing my pistol at the shadows, the room was dimly lit by a small oil lamp, it was also deserted.
We took a moment to adjust, it was the longest single tunnel segment either of us had ever crawled through, it also had no traps, which was unusual. Where was everyone who dug the damn thing, save for the lamp hanging from the roof and a canvas tarp on the opposite wall the room was empty.
I approached the tarp and used my pistol to move it aside, behind the tarp was a stone staircase leading down. “A stone staircase, this far underground?” I whispered to Benoit, “VC didn’t build this, this is old, very old, older than America old” Benoit whispered back with fear in his voice. “We’ve come this far, we have to keep going”, I replied.
We both walked slowly down the narrow staircase, our flashlights had red lenses and I swear the illuminated staircase looked like we were descending into hell. The staircase was almost as deep as the tunnel was long, finally I saw the staircase blocked by another tarp, light was coming from the other side. I moved aside the tarp with my pistol, my finger trembled on the trigger. My eyes lit up, my heart raced, I almost pulled the trigger … but I didn’t… something made me pause. The room had at least 10 people in it, none of them armed.
I pointed my pistol at the group and illuminated them with my flashlight, they didn’t respond, they just stood there rocking gently forward and back. “Benoit, don’t shoot, there’s people in here, but there’s… something wrong with them.”
I stepped into the tiny room which was lit only by small candles, Benoit followed, we both shone our flashlights at the people, they paid no attention, they continued to rock gently forward and back.
I shone my flashlight in one of their faces, I clicked my fingers, she didn’t respond. Her clothes told me she was VC, they were all VC, three women and seven men, all gently rocking forward and back, not a care in the fucking world. Their eyes were a solid color, which color I can’t really say as I could only illuminated them with my red flashlight.
Benoit motioned with his flashlight to the corner, their rifles all sat in a pile… badly rusted. “Jesus Christ, Benoit how long have these poor fuckers been down here?”, “I don’t think Jesus Christ frequents this establishment” came Benoit’s terrified response in his thick cajun accent. I shone my light to the front of the room, the VC were all facing a small altar, I walked toward it. On the simple stone plinth stood a gold statue illuminated by several candles. The statue was ornately crafted, it was of a beautiful naked woman, the top half anyway, the bottom half was something like an octopus, dozens of tiny gold tentacles had been meticulously crafted to woman’s torso instead of legs. The statue had some writing at it’s base, a writing I didn’t recognise, I reached out to pick the statue up and take a better look but Benoit shouted “Stop, don’t touch it”.
I retracted my hand about an inch from the statue, “We need to leave this place … quickly” Benoit said as he put his hand on my shoulder. “Are we just gonna leave them like this?” I said as I shone my light in their eyes, “We’ll plant the C4 charges and put them on a 90 minute timer” he said, he was already removing the C4 from a pouch on his belt. “They’re unarmed…” I implored turning to Benoit, “These people are dead, maybe worse than dead, I saw something like this once before, at home in the Bayou”. I didn’t argue any longer, we planted the C4 charges in a rush, set the timers for 90 minutes and ran up the stone staircase as fast as we could, it felt like a lifetime till we reached the small room with the lamp. I climbed into the tunnel and Benoit followed, suddenly we could hear a woman’s voice faintly calling from far behind us, “Ignore it, keep moving!!!!” Benoit shouted from behind me, I didn’t need to be told, I wasn’t going back.
It was the longest crawl of my life, I saw daylight and kept crawling even though my hands were raw and bloodied. I emerged into the light of day and gasped for fresh air, Benoit followed. We warned the others about the C4 charges but told them nothing else. Benoit and I sat in total silence away from the tunnel entrance… waiting…praying.
The ground shook, a dull thud was heard and a spray of dirt emerged from the tunnel. We both breathed a sigh of relief. It is only after an experience like that, that you ask yourself the small questions. To this day I still ask myself, “Who the hell was keeping the candles lit in that damn room?”.
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