We feel benumb’d and wish to be no more,
But in the after-silence on the shore,
When all is lost, except a little life.
——–George Gordon, Lord Byron
We sat in the darkness. Van never said much, and I didn’t care to talk. We sat on our haunches, sometime against the bank, deep in the ditch. In the moonlight, and even in the starlight, we could see the outline of Dragon Mountain half mile to the east. If the moon was bright, we could see the road. It ran off to the left back into the town and off to right it fell down a hill into the jungle and lost itself in the foliage that reached across to almost to meet in the middle. That was where the tanks and the armored personnel carriers would come from, when they came.
The nights were silent except for the buzz of an occasional mosquito or the snap of the radio in the jeep up on the road. We would park the jeep and move away into the blackness of the ditch. The occasional static from the radio, unnoticeable usually, seemed to spread over the road and the fields as a beacon.
Then there were the unidentifiable snaps and rustles from down in the jungle which sent little shots of adrenalin through us. My hands would move to the magazine in my rifle, and I would check the clip time and again to see that it was seated, and sometimes I would release the safety if the snap or rustle seemed near.
I have no idea what Van thought about. I thought about many things. I thought mostly about the young woman in the Midwest who wrote me letters that I could not answer, at least not in the way she wished. I could imagine her at her desk at the post library at Ft. Leahy, and I could imagine her driving from the post to her home in the little town nearby or driving to the post or dancing at the club with her friends. But I thought most about her sitting at her dining table and writing the letters that I got and that I could not answer, at least not in the way she would have liked.
I wondered if life should be measured in something other than time. Should it be measured by the exhilaration of meeting someone and loving that someone, and the gaiety of the dancing, the picnics, the walks by the lake, or the quiet moments you spend, time together in the waiting that comes before she watches you board a plane and you watch her standing at the gate, waving. Could three months encompass a lifetime? If that was all the life you were to have?
The armor was always late, so Van, my driver, and I would drive out and wait in the ditch until it arrived. The plan had been to bring our convoy of trucks out to Dragon Mountain and rendezvous with the armor which would protect them on the way to the Cambodian border. But the armor was always late.
At first, the trucks would sit as hulking forms on the road in the dark, in silence. But they were sitting ducks. The armor was always late.
So, I would go out without the trucks and sit in the ditch and wait. I would sit in the dark and think about whether or not I had lived all my life, 25 years of it, and if I had wasted any of those years and if it mattered if I had wasted them all and if I never had another day or another night to sit in the ditch and wait for the armor which would take the troops and the trucks down to the border so they could come back and load the next morning and the drivers could sleep and get up and bring the trucks back out onto the road the next night to wait in the darkness until the armor came.
I did not ask why the tanks could not have come into the town and into the compound and escort the trucks from safety because in war, to ask such a question is to risk getting an answer so absurdly stupid as to forgo any further questions which begin with the word “why.”
I never thought in those nights about what it would mean if the road, the field, the edge of the jungle had exploded in a blinding light and white hot razors of steel had cut us into bits. No, not then, not there, but, sometimes now.
What did it mean? Was I really there? Did it matter to anyone? Did anyone really give a damn?
Sometimes I wait in the darkness and listen for an answer.