Somewhere deep in the jungles of South Vietnam/Circa 1968
“How long has that crazy tunnel rat bastard been down in that damn hole corporal–”
Lieutenant Borden halted his heated inquisition as he scanned the black stitched name tag of the sunburned soldier standing next to him there at the scrub and stump NVA bunker complex entrance… “Collingwood?”
“Been about a half hour now LT…sir,” Collingwood answered matter of factly. “He told me when he went in that if I didn’t see his melon bald head poppin’ out of there by now that–”
“Goddammit! Why didn’t you get in contact with me son up at the damn CP?” Borden yelled as he swiped his tobacco stained fingers across his sweating face. The penetrating, photosynthetic sunlight laser beamed its way around and through the myriad, cathedral-like palms and plumes of the vaulted triple canopy jungle. Lieutenant Borden tried to approximate, just exactly how much daylight was left for them up on the steamy surface as they waited impatiently for the crawling tunnel wizard Sergeant Zinmann (a.k.a. ‘The Undertaker’) to finish his ‘research and reconnaissance’ mission.
“Nobody left me no PRC6 ‘banana’ walkie talkie or nuthin’ sir,” Collingwood replied squeamishly as he tried to plead his solo sentry case. “Besides, I assumed that you all up at the Command Post had things all squared away. But, if it’ll help, I’ll volunteer to–”
“You assumed!?” Borden exploded as he all but pirouetted then and there in the cling and grasp of the sadistic, razor sharp elephant grass. “I’ll give ya sumthin’ to assume boot. You better just assume yer goin’ down into that Goddamn hole and see what’s takin’ him so freakin’ long.”
“Yes sir,” from a smiling-and-stiffened-to-attention Collingwood as he quickly began rolling up his long, olive drab sleeves.
“Now I’m gonna let you in on something before you go down in there after his sorry ass.” He looked all around the immediate green grassy and impossibly thick bush and hanging vine periphery. “I’ve got two fresh military academy captains waitin’ for me and my report on this NVA bunker complex down here. They’re the two that got us this mole magician… Sergeant Zinmann. They hold him in very high regard as far as being the best at this underground bunker business. They like his style. They want to be among the first to debrief him on this, his thirteenth, recon-mission down in these Godforsaken tunnels. I cannot afford to let anything happen to this wacko ‘undertaker’, nor can you. So I don’t know just how you’re gonna do it, and I don’t really give a tunnel rat’s ass, but go get him out of there or we’ll all have hell to pay… Comprende?”
“Sir…I understand sir,” from a jittery Collingwood.
“Now, you said earlier that he has some kind of damn nickname for you. What is it?”
“He calls me Hollywood…sir,” from the impishly smiling corporal.
“Okay then Hollywood, here,” Borden sighed as he reached behind his back and fished around in his belt. “Take these and Godspeed.”
He handed him the search and shoot bouquet of a dirty, turtle green, duct taped angle-head flashlight and a loaded 45 caliber, army issue, semi-automatic pistol (also referred to as a ‘hand cannon’). “Do you know how to operate these two tunnel rat tools of the trade son?”
“Sir, yes sir,” from the now deadly serious soldier.
“That’s good. That’s perfect. Now, you get your sorry ass down there and find that crazy burrowing bastard and get him outa’ there…alive! Oh, wait a second Colling… Hollywood,” he second-guessed himself. “Just one more thing.”
“Sir?” from the half-down-the-hole corporal.
“When you get to backin’ up out of there, or ‘however’ you exit this freakin’ tunnel, you just start singin’ ‘Dixie’! Loud and clear so we’ll know it’s you… you got that son?”
“Sir, yes sir, but–”
“GIT!” Borden cut him off with a rude slap atop the tunnel-rat-in-training’s straw bale of now combat green bandanna tied back hair.
And so the young subterranean ‘volunteer’ did slip himself, slowly, into the muddy maw of the bunker hole. His pale brown eyes were wide, not unlike those of some wise and wary barn owl at midnight. Excited and apprehensive, he was both ‘up and down’ for the rescue mission.
The game and daring Collingwood, after he got acclimated to the unbelievable confinement and overall intricacies of the maze-like tunnel, experimented with several different methods to try and advance and negotiate his way through and throughout the surreal subterranean system. At first, he attempted a kind of makeshift wiggle-worm approach, but he found that technique to be entirely too slow and arduous. Next, he tried out a sort of sand crab style that involved a rather painful rocking motion that required an awkward system of alternating elbows, splayed to the side combat boot pushings and terribly exhausting, monotonous, metronome muscle cramping hip movements. He eventually opted for an old-fashioned duckwalk approach which although was decidedly hunching and claustrophobic, turned out to be the most effective for him to reach his ultimate goal and purpose which was to find the currently MIA ‘Undertaker’ Sergeant Zinmann and bring him back…alive.
As time went by, and make no mistake, time spent and time remaining to spend down in this midnight madness was extremely difficult to judge or keep track of even with a wristwatch. (Collingwood cursed the absence of the leather band Timex his mother had given him when he began his tour of duty in the Nam) he started to develop a kind of pace, a rhythm of sorts, to his sub-surface rescue and recovery mission:
Go-Go-Go-Go-Stop, Look and Listen…Go-Go-Go-Go-Stop, Look and Listen…
Then, suddenly (between a Stop and a Look)
A deafening, resonating explosion. Then back to complete cemetery silence as before.
“Shit!” Collingwood mega-whispered. He had forgotten to set the safety on the 45 pistol and had, accidentally, fired off a shot on the gun’s hair-trigger. He had also come perilously close to blowing the entire right side of his sweating face off!
“HAAALP!” from, perhaps, just directly up ahead in the craggy darkness.
“Whoozat?” Collingwood called out in reply as he tried to whiff away the lingering gun smoke from his squinting eyes with the muzzle of his weapon. He played the beam of his angle-head Ray-O-Vac all around and about the mud and rooty claustrophobic confines of the tunnel.
“Hollywood?” was the muffled, rather weak reply.
“Sarge? Yeh, it’s me. They sent me down here to look for you. What’s up?”
“I’m freakin’ stuck, buried Godammit! The gooks set up a damn overhead trip-trap door fulla’ rocks n’ freakin’ fire ants. I sprung it on top of myself as I was workin’ my way out. Damn careless, stupid of me.”
“You injured at all sarge?”
“Naa. Lost my damn flashlight and firearm though. But I ain’t lost my will yet. Get me outa’ this shit hole amigo.”
“Roger that Sarge. Don’t worry. I’ll get ya out.”
Collingwood decided, and rightfully so, that the undertaker was just up ahead, buried beneath a rather sizable mound of clay dirt and slimy river stones. He paused for a few seconds in thought.
“I’m right here by you, close as I dare get anyways. Extend your arms and hands out for all your worth towards the sound of my voice. I’ll give you a second and then I’ll dig in from my side with my hands. I’ll fish around for a hand or whatever and work ya free and clear outa there sarge… okay?”
“Right on Hollywood. I copy,” from the seemingly now agonizing, yet remarkably flippant, sergeant. “I’m in your hands.”
After much frustrating, painstaking, scraping, sweating and cursing they touched fingers, then a full hand, eventually, locked together with a death grip.
“Gotcha’ Sarge,” from an exuberant Hollywood.
“I ain’t lettin’ go Hollywood,” he replied from somewhere under the suffocating mound of rocks and rubble. “You can pull my damn arm right off if ya wanna try. I’m all yours now. Just get us the hell outa here.”
“Roger that sarge.”
And so, from that point forward (literally), the twosome became a shuffling, scurrying, crawling, cursing, subterranean team. Now together, come-what-may, there were also considerable amounts of grunting and groaning, sighing and furtive crying. There were even a few fits and bursts of uncontrollable, maniacal laughter as they pulled and tugged at each other, forever forward, for all they were worth.
“Feel that sarge?” Collingwood piped up as he squinted up ahead through the fading opalescent beam of his angle head flashlight.
“Feel what?” was Zinmann’s exhausted reply.
“It’s a… a breeze of some kind.”
The undertaker was directly behind Collingwood as they inched along in their quest for freedom from the midnight catacomb. He held on to Collingwood’s 45 pistol with one hand and the back of the corporal’s taught canvas belt with the other. A tidy little parade for freedom if ever there was one.
“Huh? Hey…yeh. I can feel it now.”
“That’s it then sarge. We made it back. I can just see some daylight comin’ down from that bunker hole up ahead.”
“Hallelujah! Move yer ass troop…ya damn tunnel rat!” Zinmann cried out with a coughing glee. “Let’s get the hell outa’ this shit hole.”
“Roger that sarge.”
Just beneath the bunker exit/entrance
“C’mon Hollywood,” Zinmann yelped as he tried to surge past his now hesitant rescuer. “What the hell’s the matter amigo? C’mon… up, up and away.”
“Uh sarge,” from the thoughtful corporal. “Can you sing Dixie?”
“The song of the south, Dixie?”
“Have you flipped your freakin’ lid Hollywood?”
“Trust me on this one sarge,” Collingwood said seriously over his shoulder. “I don’t know the damn words. I’m from Maine. Sing it right now… loud!”
“Sure, I know that ol’ rebel tune son. I’m from Alabama. But–”
“Sing it ya damn undertaker!” Collingwood dared at the risk of getting a 45 slug right then and there in the butt.
“Oh Jesus, okay, okay already. … ‘I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten…look away, look away, look awaaaay…Dixieland.'”
“LT, LT!” a young private called over to Lieutenant Borden as he was trying to calm down two impatiently pacing captains. “I can hear him, them down there sir. They’re singin’ that Dixie song like you told…him to. There’s two of em’ howlin’ away just down there, like a bad Everly Brothers record.”
“Hot Damn!” from the jubilant Lieutenant Borden. He excused himself and double-timed it over to the bunker hole. The two captains he had been ‘entertaining’ eyeballed each other then lit out after him.
Soon they were all gathered around the muddy opening to the bunker complex. Night was coming on, and out in the muck and mire morass of the steamy jungle there is no dusk, dawn or twilight. There is only daylight and black night. Wham-Bam! Just like that.
The coming out party
“Hollyw… Corporal Collingwood?” Borden corrected himself as he leaned low into the hole.
“In Dixie land where I was–” there was a pause from the two underground caterwauling crooners somewhere close down in the tunnel.
“Delta–India–X-Ray–India–Echo.” Resonated around, then up through the hole to the cringing Borden.
“Okay, okay. I got it dammit. Get yer two asses up here…on the double!”
“Roger that sir,” came back as an exhausted, but almost insane chuckling reply from the two horribly harmonious tunnel rats. “We are freakin’ outa here!” the undertaker punctuated.
An M35 Deuce and a Half Med-Truck was just pulling up to the scene. The beams from its slit-black-painted over headlights cut into the inky darkness highlighting the baker’s dozen of silhouettes standing all around and about the bunker entrance. Lieutenant Borden, feeling quite proud of himself for the way that things turned out, had balled his hands up into challenging fists and pressed them into the meat of his love-handle hips. There was a wilted, stub of a Lucky Strike cigarette, positioned into the corner of his slack and slender mouth. He had squared himself off directly in front of the two sagging, but somehow maniacally giddy ‘undertakers’. Their arms now slung over each others shoulders in a brotherly camaraderie. This was just exactly the opportunity that he was waiting for, hoping and praying for.
However, even before the bold and brash lieutenant could begin his self-aggrandizing soliloquy, the daunting pair of captains stepped in to now take over full charge of the mission.
“We’ll take it from here lieutenant. Thank you for all your help and cooperation out here in the field,” from a now stoic Captain Flaxon.
“Yes Barden,” from the other taciturn officer Captain Maldonado, “er, Borden… nice job.”
“But I thought I should, that is, I assumed that I would naturally be the one to debrief these–”
“With all due reason and respect lieutenant,” Captain Flaxon cut in rudely, “it certainly would behoove us all not to assume anything for the entire duration of this Godawful war, especially not out here in these killing fields, out here as the tainted knights of righteousness in this… the heart of darkness.”
There was an awkward pause as all the nocturnal night creatures of the jungle began their incessant chatterings, clickings, and intermittent hellish howlings and hootings. The spent cigarette had fallen from Borden’s pale lips. His mouth now puckered into a sad circle like the entrance to some long ago abandoned backyard birdhouse.
“I see,” from the deflated lieutenant. “I think that I understand now sir,” he finished with a respectful, albeit half hearted hand salute.
The two captains returned the culminating salute with but a few fingers off the curling brims of their unblemished olive-drab helmets. They then turned to the now hands-on-knees exhausted tunnel rats.
“ATTENSHUN!” from the spiteful, but dutiful and by-the-book Lieutenant Borden.
“Sir,” as Zinmann and Collingwood snapped up with chins squared and eyes riveted on the captains.
“Okay, you two hop into the back of that two and fifty Med vehicle. We’ll have you checked out by a medic. Then we’ve got a shit-pot of questions for you about this damn underground NVA war world… comprende-vu?”
“Sir, yes sir, Captain Flaxon sir,” they replied in two part harmony.
“You want ‘both’ of us skipper?” from the now nervous Collingwood.
“You two gentlemen completed this damn mission together… didn’t you?”
They turned just slightly there in the darkness and gave each other a nod and a wink. Then turned back. “Sir, Yes Sir!” they smiled.
“Move Out!… or we’ll just leave you two gophers…tunnel rats out here by your damn hole.”
They broke attention and started scrambling off for the waiting Med-Wagon. Collingwood slowed a bit half-way there, hesitated, stopped and turned to face the sullen and emotionally wounded Lieutenant Borden. Collingwood snapped to a respectful stance of attention. Then a crisp hand salute.
“Thank you sir,” he said evenly. “Thank you for giving me the opportun–”
“You’ve got your orders corporal,” he cut in with a tear and the slightest curling grin hidden in the shadows of the triple-canopy jungle moonlight. “Good luck and Godspeed… Hollywood!”