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The Tunnels

Entering the Cu Chi Tunnels of the Vietcong is like getting swallowed by a giant earthworm.  You bypass the throat and stomach of the beast entirely and end up getting squeezed through the guts, hoping like hell that the next light you see up ahead is the exit and not, y’know, The Exit.

The passages down here never get any brighter than pitch black gloom, any less dangerous, or any less ominous.  The battle of do-I-or-don’t-I when it comes to using the flashlight is just as terrifying now as it has always been.  Maybe even more so.  Having survived so many close calls – having stared death in the face and blown raspberries at the little goatfucker – makes you even more attached to living.

I should know.

O makes no move for his own light, assuming he has one, and I hesitate over whether or not to turn on mine.  “Go on,” he breathes at me over his shoulder.  In tunnels this narrow and cramped, there’s no point in raising your voice.  With as close as we are to each other, we’re practically kissing.  “You’ll need it for spotting scorpions.”

“Yeah, that’s what I figured,” I growl back unhappily.

We press deeper into the darkness, our vests and sleeves scraping on the dugout walls.  It’s hard to imagine that a freaking dirt tunnel can withstand bombing and armored tanks rolling above, but it can, it does, and it has.  Our existence narrows and shrinks to each step, each moment, each doubt-filled thought.  Am I walking into a trap?  Is someone watching us – and our light – approach, waiting until we’re within range before opening fire?

After what feels like hours of crawling and squirming through muck (and past the occasional scorpion), my stomach growls.  O pulls up short.

“Dammit,” I breathe, reaching for the food ration stuffed in my sock, under my pant leg.  I don’t want to eat the frickin’ thing and I sure as hell don’t want to stink up the whole damn tunnel, but my stomach will give us away if don’t put something in it.

“Here,” O says, handing over something wrapped in a scarf.

He takes the light from me and I open the bundle to find what looks like a couple handfuls of cooked rice.

“What—?” I start to ask.

“Took it off one of the two guys back at the entrance,” he tells me.  “Don’t eat all of it.  We’ve got a ways yet before we hit the command center.”

“A ways?” I echo as I lever a chunk of rice into my mouth.  It tastes like VC sweat and jungle mold but what the hell, right?  It fills my stomach and manages not to announce to the whole damn tunnel system that there’s an American cranking open a can of meatloaf in here.

O nods.  “At the next intersection, we’ll take a left, descend down a level, and then hang a right.  Come at them from the side.”

“Uh huh.  Listen, if you know all of this, what the hell do you need me for?”

He shrugs.  “To make sure I don’t get carried away.”

“Carried away—!  Man, if you think this is gonna turn into some kind of party…”

“Depends on your definition of a party,” O replies, his eyes and toothy smile gleaming in the glow of the flashlight.

Great.  Just freaking great.  I’ve entered the deadliest tunnels on the whole damn planet with a guy who thinks he has an ax bigger than mine to grind.  He’s hungry for something down here all right: vengeance or just plain ol’ blood, I don’t know which.

This joker’s gonna get me killed.  I ought to turn around right now and head back the way we’d come, or sneak off down the next intersection we find.  But then I think of JT and the five bullets that had cost me my team.  The bastard who’d set those snipers on us is gonna pay.  Oh, hell yeah.  He’s gonna pay.

“Right,” I sigh.  “What’re you gonna do to this Minh Po guy when you find him?”

I take one last mouthful of stale rice and rewrap the rest.  O holds up a thin hand when I would have given it back to him and then he shoves the flashlight at me, takes the scarf, rewraps the remaining rice, and leans forward without so much as a “Excuse the hell outta me” and wraps it around my neck, knotting it like a frickin’ bowtie.  I grimace, suddenly realizing why the rice had tasted like Vietcong sweat.  Fan-freaking-tastic. 

O nods approvingly at my new fashion statement and says playfully, “I’ll give him a kiss.”

The grin he gives me is… well, it’s feral.  “You coulda kept that little golden nugget of joy to yourself, pal,” I tell him.

He laughs softly.  “But what would be the fun in that?”

“The hell if I know.”

Still breathing out his laughter, O starts moving again.  In the confines of the passageway, I can only follow, flashlight in one hand and revolver in the other.

The intersection O had mentioned comes up and he turns down the tunnel.  We pass another bunker.  This one is not unmanned but the two guys crouched in the narrow little cave aren’t expecting us.  It’s over in a about a minute, from start to finish.  I tell myself I only imagine the feel of blood on my hands.

This isn’t the first bunker we neutralize today nor is it the last.  After more squirming and aching leg muscles and close-calls with jet black scorpions, we happen upon a third bunker.  This one doesn’t take us by surprise as the occupants are currently firing on allied forces.  O and I get down to business.  As we don’t even have to worry about stealth, we get the job done in a matter of seconds.

In the aftermath, I simply breathe in the slightly-fresher air which filters in through the bunker’s single window.  The glow of daylight reluctantly illuminates the dugout cave and I try not to stare into the sightless eyes of the man I’d just killed.

“Who’s in there?” someone calls from the other side of the earthen wall and out of sight.

“A tunnel rat,” I say only by way of identifying myself, speaking through the letterbox-sized, glorified crack.  I hesitate to give my name and rank.  Hell, I hesitate to even think it.  I’m a tunnel rat with a job to do.  If I start thinking of myself as an actual person with a name and a home, I’ll end up like JT.

A greasy, charcoal-painted face comes into view.  “You need ammo?” he asks in that corporal tone that only team leaders ever get to use and get away with.  I notice he doesn’t try to talk me out of the tunnel.  My lips twist into a wry grin.  Yeah, some sacrifices have gotta be made and as I’ve already more or less volunteered...

“I’m good, but you could pass these on,” I say, relinquishing my team members’ dog tags to someone who has a hope in hell of getting back to civilization.

Accepting and tucking them in a pocket, he says, “Watch your back, son.”  And then he turns away, orders his men to move out, and melts into the jungle.

O says nothing as I turn back to the tunnel and our mission.

Our trek continues into the darkness and then down.  Descending even further below the surface makes my skin crawl.  The sweat soaking and plastering my shirt to my skin begins to cool.  When voices echo up to us from the deep, I shiver and cover the light.

Waiting in the dark for the boogieman to come and find you is not a hobby I would have ever expected to choose for myself.  Even now, I wonder at my own sanity.  Is this the End? dances through my mind until I squish it with a plan: Use the light.  Keep a strong grip on the knife.  50-50.

And it works.

Heart pounding in the wake of the struggle in the dark, I climb over the pair of bodies, following O’s lead.  This is war, I remind myself, and not everyone gets to go home at the end of the day.  This is not heroic like I’d imagined it would be when I signed up, but it’s got to get done.  Killing is part of the job.  I try not to think about it.  I don’t always succeed.

When the passageways crisscross again, O halts and holds up a hand for me to wait.  I keep the flashlight pointed down into the mud sucking at my boot tread as he creeps forward, sniffing the air.  Then he pauses, tenses, and pulls out his well-used knife.  I smother the flashlight, pressing the lamp against my vest.

We wait.  After a moment, I hear it: the sound of approaching footsteps.

Aw, shit.  Not again.

Even after God only knows how many hours of slogging through the muck down here, O is fast.  Very fast.  By now, with so many corpses left in our wake, we are a well-oiled machine.  As O spins the first guy around and slices open his throat in one smooth motion, I lift the flashlight to the face of the second, blinding him.  Before he can do more than hiss with surprise, O deals with him.  We maneuver the bodies several steps away from the intersection, hoping that’ll buy us some time.

“Getting close,” O updates me and gestures for me to follow.

I have to agree with his assessment.  The tunnels are getting slightly taller (although never much wider at the very bottom than the nearly-four-foot span) and easier to maneuver in.  I’ve never been in this deep before.  I spare a thought for the pack I’m carrying and feel a trickle of sweat slide down my temple; it doesn’t matter how tall these damn passageways are.  When it comes time to blow this load, I’m pretty sure there won’t be all that many places within sprinting distance to hide in.

And then, just like that, we’re there.  A light that isn’t bright enough to be daylight glows up ahead.  As we draw closer, I turn off my own flashlight and listen to the sounds of voices and the grumbling growl of a generator.  The chatter is Vietnamese and I can’t understand much of it.  Actually, it sounds like someone’s talking about a fish, an old shoe, and flying, which can’t be right.

O inches forward.  I ease off the safety on my revolver.  JT’s is still in my pocket, loaded and waiting for some attention.  We wait long enough to count the voices.  O holds up four fingers and I nod.  Then he starts counting down.

Five…

This is it.  We go in, I shoot like a berserker on LSD while O takes down the commander. 

Four…

OK, I can do this.

Three…

No problem.

Two…

My grip tightens around the gun.  I force it to relax again.

ONE!

It all happens so fast, I experience only impressions.  O’s braid whips and snakes out behind him as he pivots around the corner, crouches low and moves in.  I’m half a breath behind him, arms lifting with gun steadied in both hands.  I see a guy with dark hair; I pull the trigger.

Bang!

Another guy.  Bang!

Another.  Bang!

Bang!

Heart pounding, eyes still wildly seeking out targets, I scuttle back against the wall of the cramped room that had been carved out of the earth.  My hip bumps against a table containing a telegraph and some documents.  I don’t think I have time to pack those up, not if I want to reload.

As I reach into my pocket for bullets, I glance around for O.  I find him… and promptly wish I hadn’t.

He’d been serious about giving the commander a kiss.  Holy fuck.  Only, that’s not really what it looks like.  He’s got the man pinned against the wall and he’s frickin’ sucking the air out of the bastard’s body.

Before I can choke out more than a gurgle of disgust, O leans back, removes his knife from the guy’s shoulder and slices him from ear to ear across the neck.

I don’t have time to ask what the fuck that had been about.  They command armies from this room.  Someone must have heard the gunshots.  I drop my pack under one of the chairs and, tucking the gun away, I pull out a single hand grenade.  The rest I leave in the pack.

Stowing his knife, O sprints for the tunnel we’d used.  I can hear the sound of running footsteps coming from two other entrances to the command center.  Time to boogie.

I lurch for the exit.  At the entrance to the tunnel, I pull the pin out of the grenade and toss it in the direction of pack I’d left behind. 

The gift that keeps on giving.  Merry fuckin’ Christmas, VC.

O and I seem to be of the same mind on how to survive without our asses getting blown to pieces; we dive for the bodies we’d left in the tunnel what seems like hours (but had really only been moments) ago, pick each guy up by the shoulders, duck down behind them as much as possible and then—!

BOOM!!

I feel the hot wind of the first explosion blast me in the face.  Knowing that what’s coming next is going to be about twenty times more powerful, I hunker down as much as I possibly can behind my human shield and pray.

$#*@&!

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