Dedicated to Sharon Gill
I remember a time in the bush when we were set up in a night defensive position. We were laagered near a small hamlet of perhaps four or five hooches. It was late in the day. The resupply chopper had left.
Vietnam had a way of cooling off when dusk approached. In reality it may have gotten down to 80 degrees, but when compared to the furnace-like temperatures during the daytime, 80 seemed chilly. I had been digging my fighting position, carefully piling the dirt to afford a bit more protection, but not piling it too close - where it might fall back into the hole. I often wondered how many holes I had dug in Vietnam, and how many more I would have to dig before I left the country. Vietnam was a matter of counting days.
It took an hour to finish digging. As it started to get dark, the men finished their C Rations and put up letters from home which had come on the resupply chopper that day. We straightened out our gear. The mortar platoon had settled the baseplate and had registered the Defensive Targets. As things began to quiet down, I noticed the light of a small candle appear in a window of a hooch which was 25 meters directly in front of my position. I briefly saw a shadow or two. It was very unusual to see anything like this in the field at night.. The Vietnamese had cellars dug in their homes to sleep in. They had a 6PM curfew. The candle was a breach of light discipline. I mentioned this to one of my buddies..
"Damned if I'm going out there and tell them to put it out," my friend said.
I agreed. To do so would risk getting shot by someone in a position further down the line. It was tough business going outside the perimeter in the dark.
I rolled down the sleeves of my shirt to keep away the mosquitos and wiped my face and head with mosquito repellent. After telling the others to keep an eye on the candlelight, I lay down. It was hard to sleep in the field in Vietnam. It never was totally quiet. Each little noise served to alert me to danger. With each noise I peered out over the hole then lay back down. The noise from the mortar would stir me, then I would hear the pop of an illumination round. Had somebody on the line seen something? I developed an automatic reflex and felt for my M16. It was always in the hole - a bed partner wrapped in my poncho liner. Soon, the exhaustion of the day took over and caused me to reluctantly relinquish consciousness. It was also a matter of finally realizing that there were others whose job it was to keep watch. In just a few short hours it would be my turn to keep the vigil. Sleep came.
It was quiet and still when someone nudged me for my turn at guard. I drank from my canteen, grateful that the water had cooled down.
I became alert in seconds. The first thing I noticed as I sat down in the fighting hole was the candle. Its luminescence had faded. There was a smell of fresh dug earth. I shivered in the darkness and thought how good a cigarette would taste.
The candle. My first thought was that the candle was a reference point for communist gunners. I wished someone had gone into the hooch and told the people to put out the candle. Was my fighting hole deep enough? Probably not.
There was the possibility that someone could wake up and fire up the hooch with an M60. I was almost surprised that it had not happened.
Maybe someone was sick? Was some young Vietnamese girl giving birth in the cellar of the hooch? Shadows no longer moved in the faint candle light. I hoped that no one would be foolish enough to venture outside. I could imagine the young mother telling and retelling the story, in future years, of her son being born while heavily armed Americans were camped outside. Family lore for generations to come. The story would tell of how they were unable to travel in the darkness to fetch the midwife. There was no other choice but for mother and father to help their daughter give birth. Of course, the baby's father had not been seen in months. He would certainly be a Viet Cong fighter hiding out in distant mountains, wondering about his young wife who was in the throes of childbirth, her teeth clenching a rag so as not to scream out.
The candle was a beacon to guide the father home.
My musings became grim. More than likely the candle's flame was a beacon to guide home the father's spirit. The little baby would grow up without a father. He would grow and someday be a man who, in future days of peace, would light his own candles and sit in the glow and wonder about the father who never came home.
To the fallen.
Copyright 2000 Thomas E Dier All Rights Reserved