The windstream tore at Richie’s face as he peered out over the door gunner’s shoulder. The LZ, a barren patch of sunbaked orange earth on the edge of the jungle, shimmered in the heat three hundred yards ahead as the line of helicopters clattered down upon it. No strings of tracers rose lazily to meet them; the LZ was cold. So far, so good, Richie thought. Please let it stay that way.
The Hueys dropped down and hovered a few feet above the ground. The platoon’s riflemen began tumbling out, through billows of dust kicked up by the rotor wash. The soldiers were lean, sunburnt young men, but they were burdened by packs and flak jackets and steel helmets and bandoliers of ammunition for the machineguns, and they moved slowly in the ferocious heat. There were twenty-seven of them. There should have been twenty-eight, but two days before, a skinny little kid named Hobson had stepped on a land mine and blown his foot off. Richie had vomited when he saw the bloody stump. The medic came running up and tied a tourniquet around Hobson’s calf and pumped him full of morphine. Good thing too. Hobson’s screaming was beginning to drive the platoon crazy and it took twenty-five minutes for the medevac chopper to arrive and lift Hobson out of the jungle for good.
The lieutenant they called Ranger Joe and the sergeants were barking orders. The soldiers formed a skirmish line and began to walk across the parched earth towards a hamlet half-hidden in a clump of trees. They moved warily, alert for mines and booby traps. Richie sensed the tension around him. The enemy might open fire at any moment. Richie wanted nothing more than to break away from the slow-moving skirmish line and sprint to the relative safety of the trees. He fought down the desire. He was part of a team.
When the platoon reached the hamlet, they found it deserted. No one was around. None of the usual hamlet population of old men and women, young women, and small children. No livestock either. No pigs, no chickens. The soldiers searched the empty huts anyway.
Suddenly, Ranger Joe shouted, “Over here.” He had uncovered a tunnel opening behind one of the hooches, under a pile of rice sacks. The platoon gathered around him. Ranger Joe was Richie’s platoon leader; he wore tinted aviator glasses and chewed tobacco. His real name was Joseph L. Watson, Jr., but Ranger school at Fort Benning had been the high point of his young life; it was all he ever talked about. He had won his nickname within hours of taking over the platoon.
Ranger Joe was standing over the mouth of the tunnel. He pointed at Richie. “You, Simpson, come over here and shuck your gear. Cherry like you, may as well get used to the way we operate around here. Want you to take a look down this hole. See if Charlie’s been around.” The lieutenant held out a pistol, a flashlight, a thin wooden rod two feet long, and a small spool of wire. “Here you go, take these. When you get down there, wire the flashlight to the stick and hold it out to the side, away from you. Charlie has been known to fire right down a flashlight’s beam. You don’t want to be behind it if he does.”
Richie shrugged off his pack and let it drop to the ground behind him. Without the pack, he should have felt buoyant, almost weightless, but instead a great weight seemed to press itself on his chest. He didn’t belong here. He was a city boy.
At the very beginning, there was the second half of a double feature at the old Ambassador movie house, with a massive python dropping from a tree limb onto the last of a file of hunters trekking though the African jungle. Then there was a boy’s adventure book, with Bomba the Jungle Boy grappling with a deadly fer-de-lance in a pit under a fallen tree while headhunters prowled nearby. Stewart Granger in “King Solomon’s Mines” pointing to a black mamba as it glided through tall grass and warning Deborah Kerr that “when it hits you, you stay hit.” Gary Cooper in “Drums” menacing a captured Seminole with a live rattlesnake’s curved and glistening fangs. An uncle told stories about Army maneuvers in an Alabama pine forest at the outset of World War II, when one soldier spat tobacco into the eyes of a rattlesnake that had coiled itself on his chest while he was asleep, and two other soldiers took cover in an old shellhole that was home to a nest of copperheads. Another uncle spoke of spitting cobras whose venom could blind their targets, so that Richie was relieved when an eye doctor prescribed glasses for him in the sixth grade and he knew that the glasses would protect his eyes from spitting cobras. There were visits to the zoo, where despite his parents’ warnings he went into the reptile house and watched with terror and fascination as the snakes moved sluggishly about in their glass cages. Boy Scout camp in the Pocono mountains was another occasion, where Richie lived in dread that his fellow scouts would learn of his fear and torment him with live snakes, and where a farm boy from another troop killed and skinned a rattlesnake that was as think around as Richie’s thigh. “The Adventure of the Speckled Ban” contributed to Richie’s fear too, where the swamp adder slithered along an air duct and down a bell rope to drop on its victim’s pillow. And finally, when Richie was much older, out of school, working as a bank teller, and occasionally indulging himself in X-rated movies, there was the snake in “The Devil and Miss Jones,” a small gray creature with beady black eyes, a white mouth, and a forked and flickering red tongue that some- how emerged from the porn star’s sparse pubic hair and worked its way slowly upwards over her belly, and that so terrified Richie that he fled the theater before the scene between the porn star and the snake ended. By that time in his life, Richie’s fear of snakes was a cloud that he carried always with him.
A few weeks after Richie’s experience with the snake and “Miss Jones,” he sat in Angelo’s barbershop, on McKean Street, waiting his turn in the chair, paging through one of those men’s magazines filled with color photos of naked women stroking their vaginas. Richie paged past the photos; he did not want to be embarrassed when his turn came to walk to Angelo’s chair. Then at the back of the magazine he found an interview with a Special Forces sergeant recently retuned from a tour of duty in Vietnam. The sergeant’s basic theme was that war was more or less hell, and he illustrated it by describing an interrogation technique used by South Vietnamese intelligence officers in the Central Highlands town where his unit had been stationed. When a Vietcong suspect was reluctant to talk, the intelligence officers locked him up overnight in a darkened cell with three or four rock pythons. The pythons crushed some suspects to death; others died of heart failure during the night; but those who survived, some with hair that had turned white overnight, were ready to talk. Richie left the barbershop shivering and thinking about darkened cells in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
At Fort Dix, during advanced infantry training, with orders cut for Vietnam, Richie went to the post library in his free time to read about the reptiles of Southeast Asia. He remembered his parents’ warning about the reptile house at the zoo, but he went to the library anyway, with the same mixture of terror and fascination. The other soldiers in his platoon rode the bus into Trenton to drink beer in bars where bare-breasted women swung from poles under whirling strobe lights. Richie invented excuses not to go along. He preferred to sit night after night in the nearly deserted library, reading in a trance of commingled attraction and revulsion about the cobras, kraits, and adders that infested the jungles of the Indochinese peninsula.
Richie liked the encyclopedias best. With his practiced imagination, he pictured the terrible reality that lurked behind their sober factual recitals of reptile life in the country that was his destination. The Army’s Area Handbook for South Vietnam devoted only a single paragraph to reptiles, and mentioned only cobras by name. This book is all wrong, Richie thought. They have triple canopy jungle out there. It must be crawling with snakes. The Army is playing down the snakes so as not to scare the troops.
At the 25th Division’s infantry replacement center near Dong Zu, Richie was in the audience when a staff sergeant in the middle of his second Vietnam tour gave another in a seemingly endless stream of lectures about how to behave in Vietnam, in or out of combat. The talk was titled “Indigenous Insurgent Tactics,” but Richie thought it should have been called “Yessir, That Charlie Is A Tricky Motherfucker,” because the sergeant repeated the sentence every minute or so, to underline each of his subtopics — sharpened pungi stakes dipped in human shit, L-shaped ambushes, ground glass in soft drinks at base camps, vines that triggered booby-trapped 105-mm. artillery shells.
“Yessir,” the sergeant said once again, warming to his next subtopic, “that Charlie is a tricky motherfucker. Those tunnels of his, they’re a bitch. If he’s there and you start to let yourself down into one, he’s liable to stab you in the balls with a bayonet. If he’s there and you show a light, he might blast away at it with his AK-47. Fucking Marvin the Arvin won’t even go down there. Scared shitless. Live and let live, that’s what they think. They think we’re crazy for going down there. Makes you wonder if they’re interested in winning this thing. And if they don’t want to win it, then what the fuck are we doing here? Good question, huh?”
The sergeant paused, then spoke again. “One last thing about the fucking tunnels. There’s a lot of shit down there that Charlie didn’t put there – spiders, centipedes, fire ants, even fucking bats. But one thing Charlie did put down there is snakes, fucking bamboo vipers. Little fuckers. One-step vipers, we call them. If you get hit by one of them, you take one step and then you’re dead. Sometimes Charlie hides them in bamboo tubes, then sticks the tubes into the roof of the tunnel. You’re crawling along, you nudge the bamboo, and out comes the fucking snake. If that happens, forget it. We’ll have to drag you out by your feet. So you got to be fucking careful down there. Understand what I’m saying?”
At the thought of a viper slithering out of a bamboo tube and dropping onto his back in the darkness of a tunnel, Richie felt his chest constricting. He was suddenly short of breath. The blend of fear and fascination he felt during those evenings with the encyclopedias at Fort Dix had returned.
The day after Richie arrived at Delta Company’s base camp, Ranger Joe called him and the second platoon’s two other new arrivals aside. “Now, these tunnels where the gooks go and hide,” Ranger Joe said, “we can’t just blow those fuckers, but that’s not our style. No, we go down there and look around. Like they taught us at Ranger school. You find documents, shit like that, that’s intelligence, that’s priceless in a guerrilla war like this. And so, my friends, in this platoon, we are motivated, we are committed to searching every fucking gook hole we find. Understood?”
Richie began to gasp.
“What’s the matter, troop?” Ranger Joe said, pounding Richie on the back. “Can’t get your breath?”
Four days later, in a hamlet twenty-three miles northwest of Cu Chi, Ranger Joe told Richie to shuck his gear and prepare to check out a tunnel.
His fear still pressing down on him, so frightened that he could scarcely move, Richie nevertheless lowered himself into the sloping mouth of the tunnel. He had the pistol in his right hand and the flashlight in his left; the rod and the wire were tucked in his belt. He would wait to wire the flashlight to the rod until the light from the tunnel mouth failed completely.
Six feet down, the tunnel flattened out and ran parallel to the surface. Richie began to crawl forward on his elbows, his stomach, and his knees. He had no doubt about what lay ahead of him in the damp, heavy, fetid darkness. In a strange way he felt relieved. His long wait was nearly over