Mid-spring 1970, four months into my stay at Fort Polk, Louisiana, I bumped along in the back of a deuce-and-a-half truck. The fitful starts and stops threw me and the other eleven Army, Army Reserve, and National Guard privates in my squad back and forth against each other. The driver roared the engine to keep from stalling it. I huddled on the wooden bench, the pack on my back, filled with 40 pounds of personal effects, hunching me over. Sometimes I wondered if I would ever be able to straighten up. The folded entrenching tool hanging from my web belt dug into my thigh. The weight of my steel helmet pressed down on my head.
I held my black plastic and metal M-16 rifle upright between my knees. The weapon represented another encumbrance since I had no ammunition for it, nor even magazines. Silently I thanked the powers-that-be for allowing us to ride rather than forcing us to march.
The faces around me looked blank in the half-darkness. The smell of new canvas filled my nostrils. The top offered slight protection against the chill in the damp morning air. I felt little excited about the two-week FX (field exercise) ahead, the finale to my advanced infantry training. Across from me sat Kramer, his boyish face out of place beneath his helmet. His telling me the mnemonic that backwards his name spelled 'remark' ensured that I'd never forget it.
The truck stopped abruptly, throwing us forward. I braced myself for a jerk in the opposite direction. When the halt dragged on, a private parted the flaps over the tailgate. Morning light flooded in. A cool breeze permeated with diesel exhaust stirred the air around us.
"Close that," someone ordered.
The flap stayed open. We were all equals in the back of the truck.
"What's going on?" I asked.
Another olive-drab truck sat on the elevated gravel road behind us, its engine idling. A line of uncounted other trucks closed in behind it.
Scrub brush covered the embankments on either side. The unnaturally straight edge of a piney wood paralleled the road on one side. A taut wire-mesh fence paralleled it on the other. Beyond the fence, the more natural irregular edge of another wood started. The sun had yet to penetrate into the hollows to burn off the early morning mist. I relaxed, unconcerned by the delay, convinced the middle of the road was not our final destination, taking the opportunity to rest.
I heard the doors of the trucks ahead open, followed immediately by the door on the passenger side of our own. Multiple voices began shouting, the words unintelligible through the canvas. The palm of a hand slapped the metal rail along the side of the truck.
"What the hell's going on?" Kramer asked.
A hand threw back the tail flaps to reveal the black face of our platoon sergeant, beneath a Smokey-the-Bear hat. The nostrils of his broad, flat nose flared. Drill Sergeant Black, both our mentor and nemesis, had the power to make our lives miserable.
"Ambush!" he yelled. "Move out! Move out!"
Clutching my rifle, I tumbled out of the truck. I hit the ground hard but kept my balance. I straightened the helmet on my head.
"Ambush!" the sergeant repeated, pointing toward the straight tree line. "What are you doing just standing around? Attack!"
The absence of gunfire lent no urgency to the words. Still, we stumbled down the embankment into the brush. Wet leaves quickly soaked our trouser legs as we lurched toward the tree line.
"Make some noise," Sergeant Black yelled, right behind us. "This ain't no nature hike."
"Bang, bang, bang," I shouted, pointing my rifle at the trees.
"Ratta-tat-tat," Kramer muttered in comic book fashion.
A Southerner, a pock-faced boy from Mississippi, let loose with a Rebel yell. Screaming and hollering, we entered the woods. No enemy greeted me and we milled around, awaiting further orders. Away from the growling of the diesel engines, I heard a woodpecker hammering its head against a tree somewhere deeper in the woods. Crows flew overhead, cawing.
"What are you doing stopping?" the sergeant screamed at us. "You don't stop when you reach the enemy position. You attack through it and secure the area. The enemy may have another line."
We charged twenty yards farther into the woods. We found no other enemy line among the shadows, and the sergeant called us back.
"We should have called in an air strike, Drill Sergeant," someone suggested.
"We did have an air strike," I remarked. "Didn't you see all those Phantoms dropping napalm?" The F-4 Phantom was the workhorse of close air support in Vietnam.
"You can't always count on someone else taking your ass out of the fire," the sergeant said. "You need to know how to take care of yourself."
The embankment seemed steeper going up than it had coming down. The exertion had warmed me, but the sweat was now beginning to cool. "Back in the truck," Sergeant Black ordered. "You don't think we're stopping here for the day, do you?" I climbed back into the truck with the others, passing my rifle in ahead of me.
The blood pounded in my brain as I pondered the play ambush. I'm hitting the dirt the first time anyone starts shooting at me, I told myself. Bayonet charges went out with the First World War. The truck lurched forward, throwing us back together.
The next morning, a boot kicked the tent stake near my head, waking me. Beside me, Kramer stirred, too. "Reveille!" Sergeant Black yelled. "Get your lazy asses out of the sack! Up and at ‘em!"
I pushed back the blanket, and the sleeve of my shirt touched the dew-covered plastic immediately above me. Carefully, I scooted out of the tent to avoid further soaking. My poncho, snapped together with Kramer's, created our squat pup tent. The shallow pit beneath it we'd dug the day before offered us scant additional room. The scores of other tents of the rest of the company formed an oblong perimeter.
"Sarge wants us at the command tent," a fellow private shouted at us as I took the first bite of my breakfast, crackers and peanut butter. Hurriedly, I laced up my boots and followed Kramer to the large field tent near the center of the camp.
"Take one clamp, one magazine, and four ammo clips," Sergeant Black instructed, pointing to three boxes in front of him.
I recognized the items from earlier training. The clamp, double rings of red-painted steel, was designed for use with blanks. It restricted the escape of gases when a round fired, forcing the bolt back, ejecting the spent brass, and chambering the next round. Back at the tent, I pressed it over the flash suppressor on the muzzle of my M-16 and locked it in place.
"Rock and roll," I said. "Now this baby's ready to fire on full automatic."
"Yeah," Kramer agreed. "Blanks."
Each clip held ten blank rounds, cartridges crimped on the end and plugged with a disk of cardboard. I slid 20 rounds free and pushed them one at a time into the magazine. Just then the platoon sergeant strode toward the tents of our squad, followed closely by the company First Sergeant, a master sergeant, walking like a sailor on his slightly bowed legs.
"Something's up," Kramer speculated. "Sarge's bringing Popeye over."
The senior noncommissioned officer stood barely 5 feet 2 inches tall, the Army's minimum standard. He surveyed us with one eye wide open, the other squinted. "We're going on patrol," he said through thin lips, his jaw thrust forward.
"Saddle up," our sergeant said.
"They're walking us into an ambush," I said to Kramer. "Why else would Popeye be going with us?"
I buckled on my web belt and canteen, and we took off into scrub bush beyond the perimeter. Popeye, studying a folded map, walked directly behind the point man. A mile from the camp, we entered a piney wood. Under the trees, the bush gave way to grass like green carpet. Easily-jumped two-foot-wide rivulets meandered through the wood, their waters babbling. "Nowhere for anyone to ambush us in here," I whispered to Kramer.
Suddenly, a single shot disturbed the quiet.
"What was that?" Popeye asked in a loud whisper.
"Snake," a private ahead of us said, nudging a lifeless form on the ground with the muzzle of his rifle. Another private fired a second shot. A second snake writhed in its death throes. Everyone scooted away, searching the ground for more.
"Knock it off," Popeye ordered. "You're going to give our position away to the enemy."
I glanced at the reptiles as we resumed our patrol. Despite the blanks fired at extremely close range having pulverized their heads, I recognized the creatures as the same species that had inhabited the front yard of my home in Florida. "Copperheads," I informed Kramer.
I scanned the grass ahead of me carefully as we advanced, disappointed when no more snakes offered themselves as targets. Thinking to scare Kramer behind me, I softly barked, "Snake."
"Where?" Popeye asked from the head of the patrol.
Everyone, wide-eyed and frozen, was staring at me. "Only kidding," I admitted.
"Knock it off," Sergeant Black growled. Popeye glared at me a moment before turning forward again.
A hundred uneventful yards farther along, we took an abrupt left turn. "Where in the hell is he leading us?" I wondered aloud. An hour later, we came to a taut barbed wire fence. Beyond the trees on either side, I saw an elevated gravel road, but not the same one we'd traveled the day before. After conferring for a moment, the sergeants motioned us to cross the fence.
"They've gotten us lost," I said.
"If anyone was waiting to ambush us," Kramer said, "they've probably gotten tired by now and gone home."
We walked single file down the dusty road. With little chance of encountering either snakes or an ambush, I cradled my rifle loosely in my arms.
A cracker-box house appeared just off the road. On the porch sat an older man with a deeply tanned face. He wore a baseball cap, bib overalls, and work boots. Popeye showed the man his map, and the man pointed back across the road.
"He's asking a damn civilian directions," I said.
"Inspires confidence in our leaders, don't it?" Kramer agreed.
"Were you ever in the Army?" I asked the local as the sergeants discussed our next move.
"World War Two."
"Was the military screwed-up back then?" Kramer asked.
"It still is," I told him over my shoulder as we marched off in a new direction.
We crossed the fence again. For the rest of the morning, we wandered in and out of the woods, encountering no one else, friendly or otherwise. Finally we stopped for lunch. In the late afternoon, we came upon a dirt road, two dirt tracks through the brush. We followed it for a mile.
"There's the camp." Kramer said, pointing ahead. We left the road and entered the group of tents from the opposite direction we'd left it that morning.
"Stand down," Sergeant Black told us.
I flopped down in front of my tent, exhausted. "Combat veterans like Popeye make me wonder what Vietnam's going to be like," Kramer said.
"He kept us from being ambushed, didn't he?" I said.
That night, I sat on the edge of a shallow foxhole on the company perimeter. Lazily, I dangled my muddy boots in the hole, their soles almost touching bottom. The light of the setting sun lingered over the surrounding meadowlands as crickets hiding in the grass chirped incessantly. Practice artillery shells, like struggling locomotives, arced overhead toward distant unpopulated targets. The roar of jet airliners out of reach at 30,000 feet teased my ears. Sergeants at the command tent behind us joked and laughed.
My nostrils had become oblivious to the smell of sweat, but two days without a shower left me feeling dirty. I fingered the grit that the oil on the metal flanks of my rifle had attracted. I played with the magazine, releasing it from the weapon and shoving it back in; I idly rotated the clamp on the muzzle.
"This is boring," I said.
"At least we ain't tramping through the swamp shooting at snakes and trees," Kramer responded.
"Watch this," I said, pulling the bolt back and chambering a round.
"What are you doing?"
"Livening things up a little bit." Clicking the safety off and pointing the rifle toward the darkness outside the perimeter, I pulled the trigger. The weapon popped and flashed like a cap pistol. The crickets didn't miss a beat. The sergeants continued talking behind us.
"Here comes another sapper," I said, swinging the muzzle of the rifle 90 degrees and firing again. "And another!" I fired several more rounds at a time. Neither nature nor the military seemed to notice or care.
"Vietnam must be something else," Kramer observed, "if combat vets don't even react to that."
"This is boring," I agreed. I clicked the selector switch on my rifle to automatic, and pressed the trigger. The weapon ripped off five rounds in less than a second.
"Cool," Kramer said.
Footsteps ran up behind us. "What was that?" Popeye demanded.
I could not see his face in the darkness and realized he could not see mine. I smiled, feeling safe. "Someone shooting outside the perimeter," I lied.
"It sounded awfully close," he said, skepticism in his voice. "Did you see the muzzle flashes?"
"No, First Sergeant."
"Keep your eyes open," he said.
"Yes, First Sergeant."
"That was a close call," Kramer said, when the sergeant was beyond earshot.
"Yeah," I said, climbing out of the foxhole. "Popeye's got no sense of humor. Can you hold the fort by yourself for a while?"
"Where are you going?"
"I'm going to have some fun." In a crouch, I left the perimeter. About fifty yards out, I took a 90 degree turn and in the darkness, I circled the camp, stumbling through the brush and splashing through a shallow creek. The joy of being away from authority kept me from thinking about copperheads or other wildlife.
On the side of the perimeter opposite the foxhole, I paused. "Hey, G.I.," I shouted toward the camp in my best imitation Oriental voice, "you going to die!"
"Shut up!" someone yelled back. "I'm trying to sleep!"
I answered him with several single shots fired in rapid succession. No one fired back, disappointing me. I reloaded my magazine, but to conserve ammunition, decided against firing again. Instead, I moved on and found the dirt road that ran next to the camp. Casually, I strolled down it.
Suddenly, I heard voices coming toward me, joking and laughing. I ducked between two bushes off the road. Soldiers stopped right in front of me, but in the dark, I recognized no one. I clicked my rifle to automatic, the sound masked by the bantering.
"Set up an ambush here," an authoritative voice said. "Half of you get on one side of the road, half on the other. An enemy patrol may be along any minute."
Two soldiers squatted down within arms reach of me. The leader told them to shut up. I waited with them, afraid of giving away my presence.
Five minutes later, another patrol approached. When it was even with me, the night erupted with pops and muzzle flashes like fireflies gone mad. In an instant, the staged ambush was over. My two unsuspecting companions jumped up. "Success!" one of them said triumphantly.
Ambushers and ambushed came together in the middle of the road. Not waiting for the leader's critique, I jumped to my feet and emptied my magazine at them. The laughing stopped.
"You're all dead," I grimly chuckled, walking through them into the darkness, delighted that I'd added an unscheduled surprise to the show. "Success," I mouthed to myself.
"Who goes there?" someone challenged me as I approached the perimeter.
"Popeye the Sailorman," I said, without breaking stride.
"That ain't the password."
"That's all right," I responded, walking past the private on guard duty. "I ain't Popeye."
I shuffled up to Kramer from behind. Sitting down beside him, I propped my rifle against the side of the foxhole.
"What'd you do?" he asked.
"I just ambushed an ambush," I said. "Wiped `em out."
"Who were they?"
"Hell if I know. I couldn't tell in the dark."
Back at my tent later that night, I fell into a deep sleep, the blanks and play ambushes having inspired no fear. I feared the unknown, but it was still weeks and half a world away. If I dreamed, I dreamed of the past, of home and childhood. I could not yet even imagine the nightmares of the real world.
- - - - - - - - - -Andy Hooper wrote of David's article that "[it] appealed to me, as it put me in mind of organized hikes and orienteering exercises of my own youth, where no one knew what they were doing and did their best to hide the fact." Harry Warner, Jr., commented that "I'm immensely impressed by David Thayer's writing when he does it at length. We associate him mostly with postcards of comment and captions to cartoons as a writer, and I wish he would do more extended pieces like [these] military reminiscences." And Mike Glicksohn wrote that "when I read or hear of people's activities in the armed forces, I am reminded of what a wonderful decision my father made when he chose to come to Canada [from Great Britain] instead of the United States!"
Mimosa 14 appeared in August 1993, with covers by Kurt Erichsen depicting what really happened to all those model rockets we launched way back when and could never find again. The lead-off article in the issue was a very entertaining behind-the-scenes peek at the 1993 British Eastercon by Dave Langford:
Mimosa 14 covers by Kurt Erichsen
All other illustrations by B. Ware