The Delta - Cover

The Delta

by Grumpy Old Man

Copyright© 2022 by Grumpy Old Man

Historical Story: There were snakes, bugs, leeches, and other pleasures to be found on walks in the delta nights.

Tags: Coming of Age   True   Military  

The darkness was a bit cooler, and concealing. The bugs were worse, but then they were pretty bad most of the time. We could take our time in the darkness and move almost silently. Our prey, who had a lot to do and only a few hours before dawn to do it, lacked the luxury of time and planning. By dusk we’d be ready to move out. Then began the waiting.

Preparedness was something we took for granted, in ourselves and each other. This man might spend a couple of minutes putting unnecessary touches to the edge of a Ka-Bar, Gerber. or Randall. That one might re-tape his magazines. Another might hurry to finish the last few lines of a letter home. Each man had already checked and made any necessary repairs and additions to his harness, pouches, the medical dressings that everyone carried, other equipment, weapons. Then he had checked over his buddy, taping or tying anything that could make noise. The buddy had done the same for him. Those who carried shotguns would long since have finished waterproofing the pasteboard shells, dipping them in paraffin heated over a K-ration heat tab, quickly wiping off the excess, and setting them nose down to harden. Tiger-striped faces seemed to be streaked with blood in the dim light of the shaded red bulbs.

Darkness falls suddenly in the tropics, and as soon as it was complete we’d head for the boats, feeling our way along familiar paths in the gloom and cursing casually about small things to relieve the tension. Most of us would cup last smokes carefully in our hands, trying to suck down enough nicotine to last for several hours. We all knew better, but some couldn’t handle the tension without their Camels or Luckies. Smoking puts carbon monoxide in your blood. That sucks up oxygen and reduces night vision. The movies show guys hit by snipers shooting at the glow of a cigarette, but the best reason for abstaining on the job is that smoking advertises your presence. A cigarette can be smelled from hundreds of meters away if the air is moving slowly, and in the jungle it doesn’t move much at all. Finally, there’s no practical way to keep your butts – either kind – dry on a night stroll in the delta.

The boat crews would crank up the big diesels and away we’d roar, in a direction away from the area where we’d be operating. We’d ride the noisy inboards to a predetermined point, then shut them down and lower the 50 horsepower, specially-muffled outboards. Running at low rpms and unheard, we hoped, we would move back toward the night’s objective. That was usually an intersection of waterways in the maze of mangrove islands that comprised most of the “dry” land for a dozen or more klicks (kilometers) in all directions. Someone would have determined that Charley was using a particular route for moving supplies. The mangrove and scrub wilderness was crisscrossed with canals and innumerable smaller channels, and dotted with small camps used by the Vietcong for a couple of days before they moved on. Trying to find them “at home” was a fool’s errand. In the daytime they laid low, afraid of the attack jets from the carriers offshore and land-based aircraft of all descriptions. At night they moved with stealthy skill through canals mapped by generations of ethnic boatmen.

The name of the game was to disrupt the flow of supplies, but the truth of the matter was that Charley could survive for weeks in the delta without supplies, subsisting on a small supply of rice supplemented with crabs, oysters off the mangrove roots, an occasional fish or snake, and drinking water from seeps hand-dug in the mucky soil of the higher islands. The idea of starving a native out of one of the most productive ecosystems in the world was obviously conceived in the land-locked brain of some Pentagon expert from Kansas. Any boy from the bayous could have told them different, but they never asked us.

You can see surprisingly well at night once your eyes become adjusted, even without a moon. The trick is to look a bit to the side of what you want to see, and be satisfied with impressions rather than precise images. Night vision isn’t acute, but different levels of light are easily discerned. Early on, all warriors learn a technique of de-focusing and staring into infinity. This makes your eyes more sensitive to movement. Combine that with a willingness to keep your eyes moving and not stare, and navigating in the near-dark is easier than you’d think. The ingrained habit of gazing with unfocused eyes, used day and night by all experienced hunters, is one source of the famous “thousand yard stare” that civilians remark upon. To an operator, it looks perfectly normal.

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