ANY TRACE OF morning light has been obscured by a dense, pre-
dawn fog. The haze blankets every inch of the lush, moisture-laden
foliage below the jungle canopy. The surrounding silence is both
friend and foe. Deep into a marshy hollow, a soldier walks cautiously
to mute the inevitable crunch of brittle reeds underfoot. He uses the
impenetrable mist as cover, while four troops follow his every step,
just a few paces behind.
A frail breeze drifts past, revealing only the head and upper torso
of the lead soldier. Meanwhile, at the edge of the marsh, a stealth
watchman notices his approach. He leans up against a slender tree
and aims at the tall soldier, unaware of the others following behind.
An almost inaudible click precedes a single, deafening shot from
the rifle. The soldiers unleash their fury in the direction of the flash,
emptying their clips in seconds and shattering the morning calm. No
more shots come from behind the tree. The soldiers drop into the
mist and reload with shaking hands. They assume one of their own
has been hit by that first shot but remain silent.
In the distance, a young voice screams, “Ba! Ba!” followed by
sounds of crying.
A soldier whispers, “That means father in Vietnamese. The
shooter must be down.” He points in two directions; two soldiers
nod, then split off to approach the presumed location of the
downed sniper from different directions. Meanwhile, the soldier
who witnessed the impact of the first shot begins yelling expletives,
followed by, “We need a medevac! Sarge, we’ve gotta go . . . NOW!”
As some of the soldiers rush their wounded victim out of the
marsh, the other two investigate the kill zone. They find a dead
villager with a rifle and a despondent boy clinging to him, yelling at
the shooters but not reaching for his father’s gun. One soldier grabs
the gun and slams the barrel against the tree to render it useless.
The other silences the boy with a gag to make sure he doesn’t alert
others who may have heard the shooting. They snap up the boy by
his arms and start heading for an extraction site on the other side
of the marsh; their goal is to prevent him from running back and
foiling their escape. They don’t realize the gunfire on the outskirts
of a nearby village was close enough to be heard by a few others.
By the time the two soldiers with the boy spot their fellow troops
in the distance, a welcome breeze has cleared the fog. The tallest
soldier yells again, “How long till that damn chopper gets here?”
The radio transmission operator responds, “Should only be five
more minutes, PB! Someone get a smoke grenade ready, and wait till
we hear the chopper.”
As the two troops arrive with the gagged boy, the extraction site
lights up with a green smoke grenade. The approaching chopper begins
its descent as chaos and confusion breaks out among the troops. Some
are yelling to let the kid go, while another says, “Look! His hand got
shredded by a bullet and needs attention. It’s bleeding like crazy!”
Rather than a quick, on-site patch job to his hand, the chopper
quickly lifts off carrying the sniper victim and the boy among a litany
of loud screams and accusations.
At the same time, a couple of miles away, another mission had
Running, running, running through an overgrown, palm-laden path.
The blades scrape and claw his face and arms as the early morning
dew douses his head and shirt. Pausing, he bends over to place both
hands on his knees to catch three quick breaths before starting again.
Running even faster until he reaches the edge of a small clearing, he
freezes, then squats into a low crouch. His heart races as his dark eyes
scan the opening in his path to confirm no one is in sight. After looking
both ways, he leaps onto his hands and knees as he slides beneath the
backside of a large bamboo hut, crowned with a thatch roof. The first
mission is complete—arrival undetected.
Crawling forward beneath the hut on his elbows and knees,
he starts the vile trek across moist, acrid dirt through darkness, as
annoying strings of endless cobwebs cling to his face and arms. He
spits away the sticky snares meant for smaller prey.
In the distance, he spots his target—a small opening where light
filters in from the other side of the hut. With cat-like silence, he inches
toward the coveted light. His breathing slows as he attempts to hide in
the shadow on the fringe of the light. Now it is time to watch and wait
in silence—far enough from the early morning light to avoid exposure.
Impatient, he lowers his head to peer into the blinding light flowing
between a set of rustic planks that serve as steps to the hut entry. He
remains frozen, squinting to adjust his eyes to the piercing light so he
can study the outside surroundings. Not far away, he spots a large black
bell mounted on a broad, white-washed post. Attached is a tattered rope
placed high enough on a nail to avoid the reach of mischievous children.
At least a dozen or more youngsters in vibrant white shirts race back and
forth near the bell pole, seemingly using it as a home base for chase tag.
A new breeze swirls through the palm trees, as their crisp fronds
struggle for attention from the sun. This sudden wind alters what
began as a calm and foggy morning, its force building to such a
formidable foe that even the old black bell acknowledges its arrival
by swaying to a point that the clapper strikes a delicate ring.
The concealed stalker beneath the hut returns his focus to his
own silence, and on remaining undetected. Soon the slender legs of
a schoolteacher descend onto the fragile, groaning steps above him.
Once grounded, she moves with great purpose toward the bell pole.
Several children run up to her begging for permission to ring the bell
but are soon turned away, dejected. When she reaches the bell, a name
is called out as she scans the courtyard, shielding her eyes from the
bright, morning sun. An overjoyed boy sprints to her side, jumping,
reaching in anticipation of an epic, lunging tug he will soon bestow on
the bell’s drawstring. She turns her head, and with a fierce glare lets
the boy know he could soon lose this special opportunity. He is quick
to freeze, standing erect and placing both hands behind his back and
locking his body in place with a large grin. The remaining students
migrate toward the steps and up into the hut as the teacher hands
down the rope to the boy who begins leaping and sinking with each
ring. Being chosen for this privilege must have come as a reward or,
perhaps, a birthday. Once the teacher herds all the other students up
and inside the bamboo-clad hut, the hidden spectator in the darkness
beneath the hut begins his move closer to the steps.
Enjoying his moment of glory a bit too long, the bell ringer
continues his leaps and squats in earnest until the teacher claps her
hands and barks at him to stop. He releases the fatigued rope and falls
to the ground in dramatic fashion. Standing back up, his shoulders
and head slump in defeat as he meanders toward the steps leading to
the schoolhouse. Just as his foot presses down on the creaky, middle
step, two hands dart out from below and grab the boy’s ankle with a
fierce grip. The stalker holds on tight as the frightened boy screams
and tries to break free. Inside the hut, his classmates join in, forming
a chorus of high-pitched panic. Thumping footsteps race across the
wooden floor as the teacher sprints toward her student. She can see
the fear in his face as he attempts to break free, so she grabs him
around the waist to yank him from the grip of the unknown assailant.
At the same moment, the boy is released and the duo tumbles to
the floor of the porch and begin to scramble on their backs into
the doorway. Soon a head peeks above the edge of the porch with a
devious smile. The stalker’s smiling face, devoid of one front tooth,
comes into view next to the steps and breaks into hysterics. He
knows his grand prank has worked to perfection.
The teacher barks out, “Quan! You get up here right now!” Before
he begins his reluctant ascent, she grabs his ear and tugs, which
elevates the boy up the steps with accompanying cries of, “Ow! Ow!”
By now, the screams have turned to giggles as the students begin to
head back toward their seats. The teacher berates Quan after seeing
his mud-caked knees, shorts and his filthy white shirt. She provides
a small towel to wipe off some of the mud and growls, “You! Stay
outside on this porch, and don’t you dare enter until you are clean!”
As the commotion dies down, the other boys notice something
else unusual about this morning—there is another seat vacant in
the class. It is the seat closest to the doorway, assigned to a student
named Trung. As the boys conduct their whispered assessment to
find out who knows where he might be, the teacher’s ire rises once
again. She blasts them with another stern “Hush,” then returns to
writing a lesson on the blackboard, until she hears more whispers
a few seconds later—this time from a young girl. When the teacher
spins around to look, she sees the girl has her hand stretched up high
and stiff in a confident manner.
The skeptical teacher acquiesces by crossing her arms and asks,
“What is it, Linh?”
Linh stands and announces, “I see that Trung is not here, and my
father said he heard shooting in the woods behind Trung’s house in
the fog early this morning!”
Sudden gasps lead to more whispers that transition to a noisy
clamor. Before the teacher can reestablish order, a loud, rhythmic
thumping can be heard outside. It is the familiar sound of a military
helicopter thrashing the air as it flies over the school so low even the
teacher is startled. As some children take cover under their desks, she
blocks the doorway so no students can attempt to rush out for a peek.
While the teacher disdains the relentless disruptions that have taken
away control of her class, she recognizes that she alone cannot protect
them all from the ravages of the war just beyond her classroom door.
Hoping to deflect further scorn, Quan says, “Teacher, since
Trung is not in class, and Linh said there were shots in the woods
behind his house this morning, can I go check on him?” The teacher
instructs the children to sit back at their desks and motions Linh to
come to the doorway. Away from the other students, she asks Linh
what she had heard.
“My father said he heard one shot, and then a lot more shots rang
out in those woods way back behind the Vu house.”
The teacher asks, “When was this?”
“Just at dawn,” Linh replies, “but it was very foggy. I’m guessing
seven or earlier.”
The teacher asks Linh to sit at her desk. She peers out from the
doorway of the schoolhouse porch. With no residents in sight to
enlist, she pauses and turns to stare down Quan.
“Since you have already disrupted my class enough today and
need to change your clothes, I want you to first run home to change.
Then, find an adult to go with you to Trung’s house to learn why he
is not at school today, but return here in no more than one hour.”
As Quan sprints out of his desk, she adds, “Wait! You will also
need to stay late, young man, to catch up on all the work you will
miss today. Now go! Run!”
The teacher knew Quan was not only a friend of Trung but
was also one of the fastest boys in the school. After hearing Linh’s
description, she was quite worried since she had heard some of the
villagers say US soldiers were approaching the village in the area near
the Dong Lai River, not far from Trung’s house.
She says a short prayer for Trung as she watches Quan gallop
down the path. She takes a deep breath, bites her lip, and wonders if
she is making a mistake sending the boy toward danger. She lifts her
head up and turns back into the doorway with a loud clap and smile
that gets the students’ attention.
“Now it is time to refocus all your attention on math!” On the corner
of the board where a box is drawn that says LATE, she writes Trung.
Quan sprints to his house to change his shorts and shirt before
heading to Trung’s house which, even at his very brisk pace, is fifteen
minutes away. When he arrives at Trung’s house, he sees several
villagers. He can also see Trung’s mother crying and inconsolable.
Quan tells a village elder that he was sent by the teacher at Trung’s
The old man simply whispers, “We don’t know where he is, but
his father has been shot and killed. Leave now and go back to school.
It is not safe here!”
Quan glances back at Trung’s despondent mother, but the old
man points again and yells “Go!” Quan feels dejected that he only
has part of the story to tell his teacher.
Aboard the helicopter that bellowed over the school moments
earlier, there is a more chaotic sense of panic. Roy, a tall and husky
lieutenant called “PB,” screams at a decibel level that competes for
attention with the loud rotors pounding the air a few feet above
his head. The chopper pilot is annoyed but somehow permissive of
his zealous treatment and expletive-laced demands to speed up his
aircraft. They’ve been flying at full power, but it feels sluggish due to
a strong, twenty knot headwind and extra passengers. To PB, the steel
bird feels like a crawling beast. The pilot noses it down to gain more
speed while PB continues his attempts to assist a medic who keeps
shaking his head, muttering, “This is not looking good.” PB keeps
putting pressure on his friend’s chest wound as he shouts expletives
in desperate desire for the pilot to reach the base medical center.
“C’mon, you bastards, find some clean air and get this rusty piece
of crap there NOW! How much longer? We’re running out of time,
dammit!” As the victim’s eyes keep fluttering, he appears to be losing
consciousness, so PB turns his head to fight back tears, screaming at
the chopper rotors as if they can somehow hear his pleas for more
speed. He finally looks back at the victim and yells, “C’mon, buddy,
I need you to hang in there! Hell, we all need you, so keep fighting!”
This time, he turns his chin far to the right, grabbing a piece of his
uniform in his teeth. He closes his eyes and declares with a muffled
voice, “God, you can’t let this happen! You’d better not, dammit!”
He opens his eyes and glances into the corner of the chopper.
The frightened, young Vietnamese boy sits cowering in fear. The
boy peeks only for a moment through his crisscrossed arms while
trying to hold down a blood-soaked bandage on his hand. His legs
and arms tremble.
PB turns his face back toward the pilot and yells again, “How much
more time, dammit?"