In the Dark

In slow, ragged steps we marched across the open bowl of the park to a small clearing tucked far back in the corner like a vault in a bank. On reaching it, we immediately fell to the ground because we were tired and bored. We had spent the past day and a half going from one training station to another in order to prepare for our final proficiency test, which was, we were told, something that had to be passed before we could graduate and leave for our next assignment. Now we were at the station on individual tactical training where, as in all the other classes, we had to practice certain skills and relearn certain information until it was virtually impressed into our brains so that during the test we could respond and give the correct answers with the spring and sureness expected of highly conditioned reflexes.

In front of us, sitting down with his back braced against a tree and his legs casually spread apart, only the thighs touching, was our instructor, Hack, a buck sergeant straight from a section of backwoods deep in the Southern hill country. Next to him, propped against a stump, was a tripod stand on which was draped a roll of illustrated lesson charts. “You people here ta larn something?” he asked stonily.

“Yes, sergeant,” Cools answered obediently.

“Well,” he drawled, in his high, nasal voice, “I ain’t teachin’ no more.”

We cheered.

“I quit!” He smiled, not showing a tooth. In his hand was a short oyster-colored pocket knife, not much longer than his longest finger. Turning it over so it lay flat, he unlocked one of the blades and began to make a large abstract sketch in the sand along the side of his left knee. “This is my day off an, my luck, that sonovabitch SDI comes up ta me yesterday an says I gotta teach this here class so youz people can pass your proficiency test. Well, I’m tellin’ ya what I told all ta other classes — fuck it!”

Again, we cheered.

“Fuck ta test, fuck ta SDI, fuck ’em.”

Hack was tedious and brash. Thin as a stick, his oversized fatigues fitting him like a burlap sack that has been draped over a pole, he was short and wiry, sharp featured, raw tongued, his complexion an anemic white, his hair a peculiar shade of brown that resembled the color of rain-drenched sand. His eyes, shaped like almonds, were small, hungry, and somber, and sprang out at you like those of an owl. He had a flat, bony face that gave him the look of a seasoned ascetic who was determined that everyone recognize and appreciate the many sacrifices he had made in his years of work. Though not always sure of his own worth, he was intolerant of criticism and of any apparent threat to the share of power his rank and time of service afforded him, and was more than capable of lashing out hard to defend that power. His aggressiveness moved lightning fast against any person he saw as a challenge or who released in him feelings of his own self-conceived inadequacies. People who had money, who were officers, who had more intelligence and education than he had, were his principal enemies, and he attacked them at will. He seemed to be more authoritarian than authoritative, seemed to cultivate a visibly powerful shield that advertised strength and determination, and yet, I felt, this was a pose designed to conceal his own brittle frailness. Because he could only respond to those challengers who, because of their rank or their ignorance, were considerably weaker than he was, the others he attacked from behind screens and corners. He was rarely convincing, never impressive. I thought of him as a thing composed mostly of glass — something obvious and breakable but with a cutting edge that, at times, could be sharp and deep.

Hack looked up from his mindless sketch and turned his eyes from left to right. Then he stopped and glared at the Minstrel, who was lying quietly on the ground with his hands clasped behind his neck. Slowly he got up and walked over to him. “You owe me two cigarettes, trainee.” With a look of irritation drawn across his full lips, the Minstrel leaned up, rubbed the light from his eyes, and said nothing. Hack pulled out his knife, bent down, and cut off a shirt button that had not been fastened. “Two cigarettes,” he said, with a practiced grin, “or I’ll keep this.” The Minstrel gave him the cigarettes and took back the button. “That better be sewn on by tomorrow an buttoned to that pocket,” Hack warned, “or else ya better have a whole lot of cigarettes on youself.” The Minstrel grunted a reply and returned to the ground, placing his shoulders against his field jacket, which he had wrapped into a square and set beside his rifle.

“Anybody else with any buttons undone?” Hack asked, laughing, as he walked around and inspected our pockets. He found a couple more, sliced them off, and collected several long filtered cigarettes, then returned to his spot against the tree and began to chain smoke.

Like nearly everyone else, I took my helmet liner off, put it behind my neck as a cushion, fell back, and eased into a quiet silence, like an object burying itself into a pool. Not a part of me moved. Such an absence of activity, especially during duty hours, felt marvelous, and I was quite prepared to stay like this for the rest of the cycle. Maybe forever. Lazily, as I lay there, my mind drifted through a series of thoughts, searching for a place distant and far, a place where I could do exactly as I wished. For a while, I imagined I was all alone at the beach, stretched out on the sand beneath a warm sun, waiting for someone to come with whom I could have a hard, honest conversation that would last the day and make me feel, when it was over, that I had done something worth my time.

“Corporal,” I heard Hack cry, and slowly I rose up to look at what he wanted from Cools.

“Yes, sergeant.”

“Git yo people around here,” he said, drawing an arc in the air with his pocket knife, “in a semi-circle in case someone might come around ta check on us.”

Promptly Cools sprang to his feet. His face lit up, became bright and damp, like a reflection in a pond. His arms flailed and his voice jumped as he herded us together in the desired formation. We sat in an erect, attentive-looking posture for perhaps a minute, then we were back down on the ground, either lying on our backs or our sides, heads propped on elbows, eyes shut. Cigarette smoke filled the air. The smell of pine vanished. I thought once again of various people coming toward me across the sand and grew sleepy. The only sounds were the cries of birds and the swift momentary whispers of the branches and leaves as the wind swept through them. Soon, though, a couple of people began to talk and laugh in open, almost strident tones, then a couple more and a couple more. Angrily, I wondered why these people could not stay still for just a few minutes. Were they really that restless? That starved for something to say? Perhaps the reason was nerves, I thought, the strangely uncomfortable feeling of not having something specific to do, or perhaps the conversations began out of an instinctive need to placate Hack, to keep him relaxed and content so he would not feel inclined to start teaching his boring class as a way of keeping us as well as himself occupied. Anyway, whatever the motives were, the conversations became grew and, quickly, they began to center around Hack, to the point where he was answering one question after another in very rapid fashion. Keep him active, keep him interested, the strategy seemed to be, so he would not feel obligated to begin the awful class. And, as it turned out, Hack was more than willing to extemporize and give us some of his opinions about life and the armed forces; it made him seem just that more important than he actually was.

One of his most persistent questioners was Oxy, a person who was quite similar to Hack in terms of character and personality, except that he was a great deal more volatile. Indeed, he was a nest of hotly racing intuitions; a noisy squeak who was always complaining and whining; the sort of person who made it a point to make sure everyone knew how he felt and what he thought at all times. He had a lean face, large, white eyes that resembled sea shells, and a constantly moving mouth full of small, pointed teeth that, when it was not chattering away, was smiling broadly. Often it made me think of a mausoleum because it was so open and empty. His chest and neck were built like a long, slender cane so that when he approached you from a great distance he gave the impression of a scribbled line come to life. Then, as he came closer, you discovered he was more than a scribble, that he breathed, and the very fact that he could move and make sounds made you reconsider your former doubts about the possibility of miracles happening outside of myths and dreams.

“How much time left, sergeant?” Oxy asked, in reference to the amount of time till Hack received his discharge.

“I’m short!” he answered emphatically. “Two months an 19 days an then I’m a civilian agin.”

“You’re not re-upin’?” the Sandman blurted out.

Everyone laughed, as conditioned.

“Hail, no. I ain’t no lifer. I’m just doin’ my time an waitin’ ta get back where I come from.”

“I thought you were a 20-year man, sergeant,” Oxy said in his tight, whining voice. And he smiled explosively.

“Sheeit!”

“What about the good food you’ll be missing and all the clothes?” Oxy asked, his lips still held in a contrived smile.

“Ta hail with ’em!” Hack answered, waving his hands through the air. “I want some free days now.”

After Oxy was finished with his brainless questioning, the conversation slowly turned to the war, specifically to the role Hack played in it and his views about it. The questions first asked of him were tentative ones, designed, in the main, to gauge his mood and see how receptive he was to talking about that subject. Unlike the other combat veterans in the company, Hack had never spoken to us of his war experiences. He had told us he had been there, but that was all. Quickly, however, it became apparent that now he was more than willing to tell us about his experiences and state his opinions about anything we wished to know. So we drilled him with what was on our minds, as though he were a medieval philosopher who could make objective judgments and give correct answers to all conceivable questions. We asked him everything we could think of, from the conditions of jungle warfare to the weather to urban politics to the sensuality of the young women.

“How are the women?” Oxy asked shyly.

He told us.

“Are the snakes as big as they say?”

He nodded yes.

“What are the Viet Cong like? Did you ever see one up close?”

He nodded yes.

“What’s Saigon like?”

Terrible, he said.

Then Coonas, who rarely did anything but sleep during classes, raised his hand and Hack called on him. “What’s wrong?” he stammered, his voice fraught with untested nerves, his arms flapping like empty shirt sleeves. “How come we haven’t won? How come we haven’t taken care of those people yet?”

Hack drew his head back and braced his shoulders hard against the tree. For a moment he said nothing, apparently lost in his thoughts, and the silence was complete, except for a soft, clicking sound he made with his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “We didn’t lose ta war,” he said slowly and deliberately, using the past tense as though everything had already been decided. “We just didn’t win it like we could’ve.” He made his remark as though it were a completely original idea, something no one had ever uttered or thought of before, and he seemed rather pleased with himself about this, rather ecstatic. With his own intelligence and his own smattering of personal experience, his eyes seemed to suggest, he had accurately defined in a few simple words the character and meaning of the war as far as America was concerned, and this, he was probably sure, could not be done any better or more accurately by any scholar in the world. About this subject he had said everything that needed to be said. Quickly, then, he jabbed his cigarette into the side of the tree he had been leaning against and lit another one. His sixth, I estimated.

Other questions were then asked of him, and he answered them quickly and laconically, giving us the information we wished without disclosing any hint of a personal feeling or attitude about the point under discussion. When the rate of our questioning did not subside, and our interest in his views became more and more apparent, his answers gradually broadened both in length and in depth till he concluded the hour by giving us what amounted to a monologue, only briefly interrupted by our comments and questions. The flow of his talk was smooth and spontaneous and increased in meaning and intimacy as he drew into himself and spoke of what he had actually observed and felt in the distant, warring country. Like a plaque of tessellated stone, I thought, his monologue contained small bits and flashes amid a great deal of waste. Yet I found myself clinging to each word, eagerly listening and anticipating what would follow. I felt like a schoolboy working a puzzle.

In these reflections about his participation in the war, he spoke of many things: the firefights he had been involved in on patrols through the jungle; the weariness and boredom he experienced during the long periods of inaction in the field; the filth and wretchedness he lived in most of the time; the scorching heat which he described so vividly that he made it seem as though the sun bled from a great gash and poured all its fiery light onto him alone; the stifling humidity; the heavy rainfalls that lasted less than a few minutes; the people he met in the hamlets and the vastly different breed he saw in the cities; the unimaginable horror of certain black moments when the mood and texture of the war almost overwhelmed him; the mine he had nearly stepped on that was off the side of a trail where, according to the intelligence reports, all the mines had been cleared. He became so involved in his reminiscences that I no longer felt like part of a class, but rather like someone peeping through a hole and discovering another person’s long-buried secrets. In a way, rightly or wrongly, I thought of his monologue as a sedative against the pain of his memories, as something that gave him momentary relief from his stored feelings of bitterness and confusion. And, because of this impression, I saw myself and the others in the squad as intruders, silent and respectful ones to be sure, but nonetheless intruders, like spirits in a dream.

Because he was the shortest and smallest man in the company, Hack was the “Tunnel Rat” on most of his unit’s search and destroy operations. The Viet Cong, he explained, had developed an intricate network of subterranean passageways that delved some 20 feet into the ground and stretched out for miles in long complicated labyrinths; inside were places to eat and sleep, large first-aid stations, machine gun bunkers, maps, agricultural equipment, radios and transmitters, storage areas for food and water and clothing and weapons and ammunition — everything that people needed in order to wage war. Besides being ideal military fortifications, these hidden enclaves were dependable shelters from aerial and artillery attacks. There were thousands of such underground systems in the countryside, Hack claimed, and whenever the American forces discovered one, they always destroyed it. First, though, the tunnel had to be entered and investigated, and being the Rat, this was his function. Armed with a revolver, a flashlight, two or three smoke grenades, and occasionally a can of insecticide to ward off jungle ants, he had to squirm his way into the ground and then search for prisoners and any valuable supplies or documents; after that was done, the tunnel was demolished with sticks of dynamite. This was, he said rather superfluously, one of the more certain ways to die in the jungle, yet somehow he had made it through without any serious wounds. Dropping his cigarette, he tapped a knuckle against the tree in a gesture of luck.

Then, though not in answer to any specific question — for such a question could hardly be posed, even here — but rather in the general flow of his remarks, he spoke of the first time he had knowingly killed someone.

“That first time,” he said, in his slow, Southern drawl, “ ya see him over yo sights, runnin’, comin’ straight at ya, an ya can see he’s young, probably every younger than ya are, an ya ease off on ta trigger an, all of a sudden, ya see him drop an squirm all over ta ground, it seems like forever, then he quits, he just lies there, like a possum that’s been squashed on a road by some car during ta night. He doesn’t move. Not a leg, not an arm, nuthin’. Ya got him. And yo’re glad about it, too, believe me, yo’re damn glad cuz ya know what he was tryin’ ta do to ya, an ya beat him at it. Later, ya can’t think about anything or do anything for a while, an ya start ta feel sick, ya think your insides are bein’ sucked out of ya. Ya wanta do something that first time ta make yoself forget about it, ta never remember doin’ it, but ya can’t, no matter what.”

He paused and took a deep, lengthy draw on his cigarette. Slowly his appearance changed, as if he had just realized what he had told us, and was now filled with second thoughts about what he had said. His face reddened slightly, adding some color to his chin, his eyes opened a little more than usual, making the cornea clear and watery, and he smiled grimly. With his free arm, he lifted two fingers to his jaw, grazed it slowly, then took off his helmet liner and swept his hand across his scant hair. Then he put the helmet back on and let his fingers wander in a small mound of sand that, a few minutes ago, he had shoved against his left thigh. A new cigarette was poised on his lip but was not yet lit and dangled there like a small pencil.

“But once ya get by that first one,” he added, reflectively, “ya’re all right. It doesn’t bother ya no more, or at least not like it done ta first time. Ya realize it’s part of yo job so ya don’t mind ta others so much. Ya can’t! Less ya want ta end up a war loss like some people do.” He stopped and lit the cigarette. “They don’t get ta ya like ta first one did. Nah, it’s never like that agin. Ya just see ta rest as part of ta jungle, as branches an snakes an rocks. They aren’t people no more — ya larn ta think like yo drill sergeants tell ya back in basic, that ta dinks don’t bleed, an it makes it easier on ya when ya start thinking that way. A hail of a lot easier. Ya ... ya just accept it, ya get used to it I guess, ya don’t let it get ya down like it done before, ya don’t feel so bad about it agin, ya start thinkin’ only of yo own life an yo buddy’s life. That’s why ya’re there, isn’t it? It’s yo job, it’s what ya’re sent there ta do, an ya do it, plain an simple. Ya don’t even pull ta trigger no more, ya don’t even know when it happens cuz ya’re just lookin’ over yo sights and kinda lightly brush a finger against ta trigger and blam! it goes off. An somebody’s on ta ground screamin’ his guts out, an all ya know is that it ain’t you. Ya’ve got no choice about it. It’s him or you. That’s all it comes down ta out there.” He stopped and relit the dead cigarette. “Right?”

There was a silence. Not a silence of judgment or contemplation, just a long empty silence. Hack smoked his cigarette and then, after finishing it, went on to tell us some other things about his year in combat, talking quietly and intensely right up till it was time for us to leave. As I listened to him, I continued to have the feeling that I was intruding upon his privacy, and though fascinated with what he had to say, I felt uncomfortable and, strangely, began to experience a sense of actual embarrassment, as though I personally had done something foolish or wrong. So I tried not to listen anymore, and to use the time to think of more pleasant things, but his reminiscences had left in me a sharp, lingering chill I could not seem to shake. Never, I thought silently to myself, had I ever dreamed I would hear someone confess that he had killed a person. Yet now, as frankly as if he had been talking about the weather or his plans for the coming weekend, Hack had given us a personal description of this most terrible of human acts. I could hardly believe it. But, what was perhaps even more incredible, the longer I thought about it, was the realization that I was now in a community where such an admission could be made without apology or fear. That, clearly, was the most astonishing thing of all.

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