Creative Writing: Instant

Creative Writing: Instant
I’ll always remember Instant. That was the nickname the men had tacked onto
the muscled giant that wielded the M60 in my unit. “Instant” was short for
“Instant Death.” And I’ll always remember the first time I saw Instant in
action.

I was a new Lieutenant assigned to Vietnam. Back then, the Army didn’t try to
develop any “team spirit” within the corps; men were rotated frequently before
any friendships developed. Consequently, my men were a group of strangers united
only by the need to survive. They were eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds with the
eyes of old men. My first real assignment was to check a tiny hamlet, Dien Hoa.

Army Intelligence believed the Viet Cong were operating from Dien Hoa. Our job
was to determine if that was correct.

We rode in an olive-drab chopper. The whooping blades of the helicopter give
us a little relief from the relentless heat of ‘Nam; the blades cut the thick,
humid air and pushed a breeze downward over the passenger compartment.

Soon, we circled the landing zone. The LZ looked cold. There’s only one way
to find out if it is really cold, I thought as I double checked my M16. If no
one zapped us when we entered, it was cold. If they did, it wasn’t.

“Lock and load,” I yelled.

The helicopter circled low and slowed down until it almost hovered four feet
from the ground. The door gunner mashed the spade grips on his .30 caliber M60
machine gun. The gun spewed bullets over the field below us.

It was time to jump off the skids while we skimmed above the surface of the
lush, green valley. My stomach felt like it was turning wrong-side-out.

We dropped into the grass, stumbling under heavy packs and the weight of ammo
and weapons. I wondered about snakes and hoped the groan I mad when I hit the
ground was drowned by the noise of the helicopters. Though the helicopter gunner
continued firing into the heavy growth to the north of them, there was no return
fire. We were safe for the moment.

“OK,” I yelled signaling with my hands the way you’re not supposed to. Hand
signals are a good way to mark yourself as the leader. It’s just the thing enemy
snipers watch for. But few of my twenty-seven men could hear me over the roar
and firing of the helicopters. I had no choice. “Move out. On the double,” I
ordered. The choppers lifted. We were on our own.

The soldiers started with the usual complaining but then grew strangely quiet.

They knew we had to move quickly to leave the dangerously-exposed LZ. The
helicopters were lost in the distance; the only sounds were the usual clanking
of equipment and water sloshing in canteens.

It took nearly an hour to walk through the grassland and occasional wooded
section of the valley to the heavy jungle area at the foot of the hills. Our
speed slowed while we went up the slight incline and wove through the ever
thickening vegetation. At the ridge which overlooked Dien Hoa, we halted while I
inspected the village below them with my binoculars.

I searched for a warning sign, some hint of danger. Old men, women, and
children, with a few water buffalo, milled around; everything appeared normal.

But I knew that just because an area “looked” business-as-usual it meant nothing
in Vietnam.

“Call headquarters,” I told my radio man as I lowered my binoculars. Moments
later, he had reached headquarters with his radio. I took the phone piece and
let my commander know what the situation was. As expected, we were ordered to
continue toward the village. I gave the radio phone-piece to the radioman, put
my helmet back onto my head, and stood.

“Sergeant,” I said.

“Yes, Sir,” Sergeant Nelson answered. The burley, middle-aged trooper
squinted at me. His face was wrinkles, sunburn, and peeling skin.

“We got bunched up on our way up,” I said. “Be sure they keep spaced apart.”
Sergeant Nelson nodded. I didn’t have to tell him that it would be essential
to keep spaced in case of an ambush. I hoped the new guys would take his orders
seriously.

As the Sergeant crept down the line inspecting and giving last minute
instructions, I wiped the sweat from my brow with a dirty hand. Your hands never
stay clean for long in Vietnam and you never quit sweating. I wondered how I
would hold up in actual combat.

Eventually we were ready. “Saddle up,” I said, hoping no one noticed the
slight quiver in my voice.

There were two trails leading into Dien Hoa from our side of the village. I
didn’t choose to take the most direct footpath down. We would have been too
exposed on it. I felt certain it would lead to an ambush or booby traps if some
of the villagers were Viet Cong. I ordered the men off the ridge and into the
jungle area overshadowing the village. Though it was dangerous to do, we had to
stick to the trail; the vegetation was too dense to allow us to approach the
village from another route without making a huge detour.

We walked into the shade of the thick canopy which gave some relief from the
noondays heat. It was a sharp contrast to the hot grassy plane. The smell of wet
dirt and rotting vegetation created the feeling of being in an entirely
different place and time, rather than just a few kilometers from our LZ.

Halfway down the slope, Jerry, the point man suddenly dropped and signaled a
halt. I passed the order down the line with the same hand signal then pushed by
the three grunts ahead of me and crept forward to crouch beside Jerry. “What’s
up?” I whispered.

“Charlie,” Jerry said in a low, hoarse voice.

I crawled by the soldier and looked down the trail. There, perhaps forty
yards ahead of us, was a group of black-pajamaed Viet Cong. They laughed and
smoked. They sat on a log alongside the path, their AK-47s carelessly rested
against a palm.

As I watched, the Cong were joined by four similarly dressed comrades.

Jerry and I dropped back from the guerrillas’ sight. I used hand signals and
whispered commands to position my men on the high side of the trail. We crept
through the vegetation still wet from the mornings dew. I again momentarily
wondered about snakes, then forgot them while I fought my way through the vines
and dense growth.

I had ordered them not to fire until the M60 gunner Instant did. And Instant
was not to shoot until I gave the go ahead. I stationed myself next to him and
Evens, the short, mousy private who served as Instants ammunition carrier.

Instant crouched in the brush; he wore a flack jacket without a shirt under it,
exposing his muscled arms.

The Viet Cong on the trail acted like they owned the place. They made enough
racket and jabbering to be heard for miles. The guerrillas’ lack of discipline
was astonishing; I hoped we could take advantage of their carelessness.

Moments that seemed to stretch to eternity passed, then six VC rounded the
turn of the path. They walked into the kill zone of the ambush, continuing to
talk loudly, completely oblivious to the danger. Each had his AK-47 balanced
over his shoulder with the rifles butt behind him while he carried the firearm
by its barrel.

There was jabbering and laughter on the trail behind the six; I let the first
group continued toward our trap. I watched. Four more men and two women rounded
the angle of the trail. One woman wore a hat, the other woman and the men had
rags on their heads; all wore black pajamas with sandals. All but one. He stuck
out from the others. He walked like a soldier and wore a tan uniform and green
“safari hat” of the North Vietnamese Army. Unlike his comrades, he carried an
old Russian SKS rifle.

Headquarters would be glad if we got that guy, I thought. They were always
trying to trace the connections between the North and South. Too, the NVA might
have documents on him from which US Intelligence could get useful information. I
hunkered down wondering if additional VC or NVA would stumble into our trap.

Things were going to be tricky; if I waited too long, the first Cong would be
out of the kill zone.

I listened a moment for others; I could hear nobody else. It was time. I
tapped Instants steel helmet.

There was a nearly inaudible click as Instant released the safety on the M60
machine gun. Then all hell broke loose.

I blinked at the loud thumping of the M60. With each burst, it threw a golden
shower of brass into my line of vision. I strained to see through the thin blue
smoke that escaped from the flash hider of the machine guns barrel. The low-
toned explosions of the M60 were joined by a higher-pitched ca-whacking chorus
of M16 rifles. The twelve people on the trail jerked and danced to the cruel
music. They were chopped down before they could take any action or even ready
their weapons.

“Cease fire,” I yelled. Two young soldiers continued to shoot although the VC
were down and obviously dead. I swore under my breath, need to work on fire
discipline. The last few shots ended. Sergeant Nelson screamed and cursed the
two privates for wasting ammunition.

We rose to stare at the bodies sprawled across the footpath below us. The
Sergeant quit chewing the two soldiers’ butts and the jungle was quiet. Even the
sounds of insects were absent. Only the whispers of my men and the smell of
gunpowder hanging in the air explained what had transpired.

I signaled several of my troops to quit gawking at the bodies and return to
their positions so each end of the trail would be secure. Sergeant Nelson
inspected the bloody corpses for documents. I ambled back toward the point,
surprised at the elation I experienced after my initial taste of combat. As I
neared Jerry, I saw a flash of movement behind the palms and bushes that
screened the trails bend.

More Viet Cong.

Jerry stood on the path, oblivious to the black forms running toward him.

“Watch out!” I hollered. I crouched instinctively. I brought my M16 up and
snapped off its safety.

Jerry noticed my performance. The GI twirled and dived back into the brush
with a crash. I saw a muzzle flash. The only way to see a muzzle flash in
daylight is to be gazing down a barrel. The bullet narrowly missed me as it sped
by with a crack.

Six Viet Cong raced around the corner of the trail. Their firearms blazed on
full automatic. I returned the fire, knocking one into the brush. Their shots
kicked up plumes of earth on the trail next to me and shattered the canteen on
my belt. The VC leaped into the greenery off the track. I scrambled to leave the
trail myself.

I could hear my men thrashing in the undergrowth behind me; but no one was
shooting for fear of hitting me or Jerry. Everything grew quiet. I searched the
brush for a sign of Charlies presence. Then I realized that the VC had leaped
into the same area where Jerry hidden. All hell’s going to break loose if
that’s what happened, I thought to myself.

Sure enough, there was a flurry of shooting. AK-47s and an M16 barked in the
scrub ahead of me. Ignoring the stray bullets cracking in the air, I rose up to
a crouch to witness the outcome, my carbine at the ready.

As I watched, three of the Cong bolted out of the brush. They crossed the
trail and dashed into the vegetation on the opposite side of the path before I
could zap them. Two more of the enemy followed them; one limped badly. The
second staggered, blood spurting from a wound on his neck. The two crossed the
trail; my men finally started shooting. American bullets kicked up the sodden
path around the VC. The first VC dropped like a limp rag doll. The other
sprawled, his feet sticking out of the brush onto the trail.

After the flurry of shooting, there was a lull. Most of my men had exhausted
the rounds in their magazines. They paused to place new magazines into their
M16s. AK-47s initiated a din of their own to fill the silence.

AK bullets cracked next to my head. I scrambled to place a palm between me
and the VC and then realized that I was hearing the blast of a rifle from the
knoll above me. I spun and discharged my weapon toward the sound. I caught a
glimpse of a black figure. The man jerked and fell as I drew a bead on him. Half
his face was blown away. More gun shots came from the hill as well as from the
bend of the pathway; I cursed myself. I had permitted us to be caught in a
flanking movement. There was little I could have done to prevent it, but I was
furious for not anticipating it all the same.

Crouching down, I flipped the switch on my rifle to full auto. I kept the
tree to my back so I’d be screened from the Cong on the trail. Rising slightly
from the foliage, I squeezed off a barrage of slugs toward where the shooting
came from the slope above. I dropped to the ground.

There wasn’t time to fire again. A hail of bullets answered my shots,
cracking as they passed above my head; other bullets dug up the damp soil and
growth. I crawled, hidden in the vegetation, and tried to withdraw from the spot
from which I’d fired. I scooted on my hands and knees. Someone was thrashing
toward me. I froze. My finger tightened on the trigger. Then I relaxed. I could
see the olive green of a US uniform. It was Jerry!
The soldier crawled to me. Despite the fear in his eyes, he smiled grimly as
he hugged the ground. A trickle of blood was coming from a small wound on
Jerrys upper left arm. His lower ear lobe was also bleeding where it had been
nicked by a bullet or possibly a splinter kicked up by a near miss.

The shooting stopped. I crawled forward and peeked through the thick brush
that screened the trail. I could barely discern the black forms of two Cong who
were crawling along the trail ten yards from us. I dropped the nearly empty
magazine from my carbine while I watched the enemy soldiers. I rolled over and
drew a full magazine from my pouch and slipped it silently into my rifle. My
gun was still set on full auto. I wiped the sweat from my right eye. Rising to a
crouch, I shot into the foliage at the two guerrillas. One of the guerrillas
twitched spasmodically, then fell flat, my bullets gnawing at his body. The
second, a young girl, spun over firing her AK skyward, then abruptly slumped.

As I dropped into the growth beside the point man, Jerry opened up with his
M16. I peered through the foliage where Jerry fired. Several more Cong were
sprinting toward us. The VC discharged their AKs blindly at the sound of our
rifles. I emptied the rest of my magazine at them. All four of the Cong were hit.

They collapsed on the trail, out of view. Now AK-47 bullets again rained on us
from close range. The hill just over us was lit up with gunfire. Jerry and I
plunged into the undergrowth, leaves and twigs from the trees overhead dropped
on us. The moist dirt exploded with the impact of bullets.

The noise of the gunfire was accompanied by a wet, slapping sound, like a
water melon being struck by a hammer. I glanced at Jerry. His face was staring
with unfocused eyes. His face was blank, emotionless, his spirit drained from it.

A large gaping hole in his temple oozed blood; the leaves behind him were matted
with his blood and brains. I looked away and closed my eyes.

As a Lieutenant, I knew I was responsible for my soldiers. Forget Jerry, I
told myself. Save the rest of your men from this predicament. But how? I’m too
far from away to give orders. As close as the Cong are would make movement
suicidal…

Another barrage of bullets chewed into the dirt around me.

I lay still, playing dead, praying that the next bullet wouldn’t be the one
to kill me. After a few tense moments, the thumping of bullets so close to my
body stopped.

Lying motionless for an eternity, I listened to the battle. I couldn’t
believe I hadn’t been hit even though the VC shooting at me had been quite close.

I heard the Cong approaching through the vegetation.

I rolled over, jerked a grime-covered grenade from the side of my magazine
pouch, and pulled the pin. I tossed the grenade toward the rustling sound. The
blast that came seconds later was accompanied by a scream. On target, I thought.

I instantly flung two more grenades.

As I listened, my M-79 grenadier started firing and the larger explosions of
his shells reverberated from the knoll above me. Above the sounds of exploding
grenades and the shots from the AK-47s, I could discern the staccato firing of
an M60 along with the renewed fire of an M16. I quickly snapped a new magazine
into my and looked over the grass to see what was happening.

I saw Instant. He was standing, firing his M60, oblivious to the incoming AK-
47 bullets that were cutting through the brush and around him. He fired up the
hill toward the Cong. With each string he shot, he took steps up the slope. His
cowering ammunition handler scampered behind him with spare ammo, his M16 rifle
playing a counterpoint to Instants weapon.

As I watched, I learned how Instant had obtained his name. Bits of palms
shattered under the M60s fire. Here and there, Cong shrieked, cut down by the
invisible blade. Burst after burst spilled brass out the side of the weapon as
Instant directed his bullets at the Cong. But it’ll only be a matter of time
before they slaughter him, I told myself. They murdered Jerry. Damn it, they’re
not going to waste Instant. Acting on my anger, I jumped up and pulled the
trigger on my carbine, and fired the Cong up the ridge.

“Come on!” I ordered a private I saw cowering in a clump of rubber trees.

After a moments hesitation, he jumped up and joined me, his eyes wide with fear.

We sprinted up the hill, exposed. But we didn’t care. Run, aim, shoot.

Sergeant Nelson stood up. He yelled and cursed those cowering around him. One by
one they rose and joined the mad charge up the steep incline. We continued,
stumbling, hurdling through the thick vegetation, and screaming like demented
souls.

The firing of the AKs petered out. We darted through the foliage to the top
of the ridge in our spontaneous charge. At the crest of the slope, the plants
became sparse. We overlooked what had once been terraced farmland on the
opposite downward slope. In the sparse scrub, we could also see the retreating
VC. They were bounding like scared black rabbits. From our vantage point, the
VC were totally exposed below us. We launched a hasty barrage after the enemy.

Then we realized our opportunity. The Cong had no cover close by. We proceeded
to take careful aim, savoring shots the way a hunter might when he made ready to
bag a prized buck. We made careful, deliberate shots. One after another, the
black, running forms crumpled. With a final flurry of shooting, only a lone
Charlie managed to escape into the grove of trees below.

The bodies of the VC dotted the open hillside. Sporadic last shots ended the
lives of the few wounded who continued to stir below us. Complete silence
reigned for a few moments, then Blake yelled an obscenity at the last Cong who
had eluded us.

Silence.

“We did it,” I simply said, my words falling flat.

A weak cheer went down the line; one man dropped to his knees and cried. Even
though we’d all felt as good as dead, we realized we had won.

Afterward, waiting with the wounded and dead for dustoff, I thought about the
firefight. Instants selfless deed had saved our skins. It was little wonder the
men had so much respect for the soldier. I studied him for a moment. He sat by
himself beneath a tree, carefully cleaning his M60 like a mother washing a baby.

He wore a bandage over his right eye and a second on his arm; except for those
minor wounds, he had managed to come through the fight uninjured. And he’d
shown a green lieutenant and his men what true bravery was.


About the author