I huddled under my poncho against the ceaseless rain. I sat back against a tree, trying to get a little shelter yet still have a good view of my area of responsibility. Our squad was tapped for patrol and we were about eight klicks away from the Tactical Operations Center, the TOC, keeping an eye on a well used trail. Command was sure that the VC were using it for movement and supply and so they sent us to set up an ambush. Usually our patrols were see and avoid. That meant we were supposed to move around a few map grids looking for signs of the enemy. We weren’t supposed the engage them, just report on their activities. It was up to the people in S2, military intelligence, to make heads or tails out of what the various patrols reported. Considering how often things went wrong, to a man we considered the words military intelligence to be an oxymoron. Accent on the moron.
Occasional bursts of lightning in the clouds gave off indirect camera flash lighting, freeze framing the jungle where I was looking. What with the rain, there was no way to hear anything except the heavy drops that struck the trees, plants, and my poncho in a constant patter. When the rain would stop, the drops continued to fall, rolling off of the leaves and branches above in the jungle canopy. Tired, uncomfortable, soaked to the bone and frightened, quick glimpses of shadow would cause an adrenaline rush, the fear causing my heart to race and thump in my chest. I could hear my pulse in my ears.
We were stretched out on one side of the trail to keep us from shooting each other in case we had some party guests drop by. I turned my M-16 upside down and aimed it at the ground. About a half pint of water drained out. I wondered if the water would cause the barrel to explode if I fired the the weapon. I decided probably not, we’d have heard about something like that just like we heard about how the super high muzzle velocity of the M-16 caused blades of grass to deflect the shots, or how shooting someone in the arm could have the exit would show up in a leg. Oh, and keep the weapon clean. They would jam easily if they got dirty. We could all disassemble and reassemble our weapons rapidly and without really looking at what we were doing. Later I would trade away my 16 for a .45 caliber automatic and an M-79 grenade launcher. But for the moment I was curled up in the rain and waiting for Charlie with a soaking wet weapon.
I made a screech and jumped up. My neck began to burn and my ears stung. I began to feel bites on my cheeks and even my hands, which I was using to try and brush away whatever was causing me so much grief. In a wink of an eye our sergeant ran up to me and shoved me to the ground and started slapping my face and neck. “It’s ants, man. You’re sitting on a nest of ants. Stop yelling, I’ll get ‘em off you.” He did, and poured a part of a canteen of water on my where huge white bumps the size of marbles were rising in my skin. The water felt good, like it cooled the burning sensation. I was feeling dizzy and said so. The sarge told me that was to be expected, the ants had a toxin in their bite. “Ain’t gonna kill ya, just make you uncomfortable for a while.” I moved a few feet away to a large broad leaf bush and inspected it closely. The sarge shone his red flashlight on it and pronounced it bug free. “You can hang out under here, but keep in mind that the other little beasties in the forest don’t like rain either, so expect company.”
I moved over to where some brush gave low cover and sat in the open, listening to the raindrops falling on my poncho hood. thap! thap! thap! I tried to count the number of drops that hit me but lost track after a couple hundred. All the while though, peering into the darks and trying to sense movement on the trail. It grew monotonous as I sat there hour after hour. There were no guard shifts on an ambush. Everyone had to be head’s up all the time. It was a relief when I realized that I could make out more and more detail of the area around me. The light was coming, the sun on the rise. Not like we’d see it of course, clouds still blotted out the sky and the rain kept its incessant tattoo.
Before long the sergeant was gathering us up and putting a guy on point to lead the way, we started back toward the TOC.
We got some warm food –which is to say the left over powdered eggs and some peach halves from a can and the medic put some salve on the angry lumps from the ant bites. They counted 34 of them on my back, neck and cheeks. Then we were sent off to our holes to dig them deeper, reinforce them more, and pile sandbags around them we filled from the dirt we dug from the pits. Tomorrow would be another day and being low on the totem pole, we’d find out what we’d be doing when we did it.