"Gator Land" from US 56465

by Tom Deits

Another day in purgatory began with Corbett grabbing the boot on my right foot and twisting. For a moment I was startled. Eyes half open, mind half shut, I was lost in space.

"Andy's on the horn. Wants to chat with you."

Andy, oh yeah, Staff Sergeant Andrews, my immediate superior,  two klicks away by foot, half a world away if a NVA unit was between us and them, but a mere click of a button away by portable radio.

Strickland handed me the handset, which was the only temperamental part of the PRC 25.  The rest of it was built like a battleship. You could drop the twenty three pound radio with battery pack, fifty feet from a helicopter or submerge it in the South China Sea for an hour, and it'd work impeccably, unless the handset decided to quit.  Too hot, too wet, too banged around, it'd short out.

Rain was beginning to tumble from the sky.  I gripped the handset snugging it tight against my left ear, but could barely hear Andy. In good weather, flat terrain, the radio's range was ten klicks.  If the monsoon was upon us, or we were in rolling terrain, the "Pricks" effective range was reduced by half.

After repeating "say again" three times, I finally got the drift that, weather permitting, we were scheduled for chopper pickup at 0700 hours. I checked my watch. An hour plus a minute. Since I had the map, and Andy had the coordinates, I had to find him, but not by the most direct route. Whatever force, ours, theirs, or alien, that had cut us off from the rest of the squad as we scouted night ambush coordinates, was likely still in place. My intent was to give them a wide berth.  

My upper body was vibrating as I pawed in my rucksack. I was weary of wearing a poncho in no man's land. It was mostly waterproof, but also telltale noisy and cumbersome. It impeded hand-eye-M16 coordination to dangerously slow. My fear was that a "one-eyed, one-horned purple people eater" could out gun me. The Sheb Wooley nonsense song was playing on a closed loop in my mind as my eyes scanned the forest primeval.  

Ponchoed up, Corbett, Strickland and Hamilton were waiting for me to make a move. Notabsolutely certain where we were, it was difficult, even with a map in hand, to triangulate a course that would intersect with Andy and the rest of the twelve man squad minus my four man recon party. I hesitated, hemmed and hawed.

"Ready?" The quizzer was Corbett.

Hamilton answered for me. "Ready."

I stepped off a hundred meters. The sun popped out of the clouds. In another hundred meters, I was par boiling under the poncho. I checked my watch. Forty minutes until lift off. I signaled for a break to remove the portable heat and sweat trapper. The guys, not trusting that the rain was just a morning shower, kept theirs on.  

My feet began moving, but lacked conviction. The underbrush was thicker than yesterday or so it seemed. Fire ants were on the hunt.  I brushed a small herd off of my fatigue pants. A couple made it under my shirt. I longed to curse, but silence was our best friend. It and luck.

Strickland yanked on my ruck.  He blew the word "Andy" at me and handed me the handset. Pick up was delayed. No rush. Be careful.

Strickland was gandering at the map while I was on the horn. He pointed with his left hand.
"You sure?"
"Yeah, eagle scout."
I gazed at the map. "Okay"
A dozen baby steps and I scared up a deer the size of Bambi. It crashed through the underbrush. Any and all creatures within a klick, except me with the map, knew our exact position.

We didn't move. If they'd heard us, I wanted to hear them. A breeze was moving through the treetops. Couldn't hear anything else. Corbett was getting antsy. He didn't want to miss the choppers. I didn't have the metallic heart to burst his bubble, however tiny, and inform him that, most likely, we'd be hoofing it back to civilization.

Editor's Note: This piece is excerpted from Tom Deits' upcoming novel, US 56465 (Rain Press, 2018). Reproduced here with permission of Tom Deits.