11 January 2013

The Silence of the Animals


by Dixon Hill

[Sorry not to include photos, but Blogger won't let me upload a single photo today. It keeps letting me load them into my draft, but then refuses to save if there are any photos contained therein.]

The screaming of animals is one of the most viscerally frightening things I have ever encountered.

I suspect the human mind is hardwired that way. Probably a survival mechanism throughout history. Some guy's walking along through the woods when suddenly a big cat screams, and the fellow instinctively high-tails it. Runs away, and maybe lives another day.

I recall a few times, while patrolling in jungles, when the scream of a nocturnal animal really made my ears prick up -- and my hair stood up right alongside them! Though, the time I was most frightened, was the time I sat alone, on a "point" -- a location that other soldiers had to find on a nighttime land navigation compass course -- in Panama.

There, I encountered an animal that never screamed, but chilled me to the marrow.

What does this have to do with writing?

Perhaps nothing.

Or, maybe somebody can use some of this information in a story some day. I don't know.

Frankly, I sometimes don't know what to do for my SS post. I'm happy to blissfully write fiction at the drop of a hat. But, nonfiction often gets me tied up in knots. Do I remember this incident correctly? What the heck was that guy's name? I need to do more research, before I'd feel comfortable saying that.

And, unfortunately, this was one of those weeks, though perhaps I may be excused since I've been wrestling with four cats that had to be stuffed into cardboard carriers then driven to the vet's office to be "fixed". And, I've been fighting a losing battle with the fuse box, which has left me writing this post in an office that contains one working lamp, a small heater and my computer -- thanks to an industrial strength power cable. I'm not one for surrendering, however, and I've gathered plenty of G2 that I believe will permit me to vanquish the fuse box within the next few days.

Meanwhile, I discovered, yesterday, that my dad's been riding around on his recumbent trike with the back wheel flat -- for about four weeks! Worried that the rim might be bent (and that rim holds the high-tech gears of his 8-speed inside the hub), I drove the bike downtown this morning and let the bikeshop guys take care of it. At 65 bucks, I think we got off light. And, when I got home, and called my wife to complain that I still hadn't come up with a good topic for my post. She suggested writing about The Silence of the Lambs, and tying it into a problem my youngest son had at the veterinarian, when we took the cats in to be fixed.

That was sort of problem for me, because I think there's undoubtedly enough already written about The Silence of the Lambs (both movie and book), that I don't have anything new to add. As for Quen, his problem was that he perceived the animals in the vet's office to all be "screaming". I think he heard a dog yip in the back, when it was probably getting a shot or something. And, he transferred that yip to the gentle whines and sniffs of the animals in the waiting room. Quen was worried that his cats might feel pain, when the vet operated on them. And, he felt the animals were all afraid and "screaming" so he asked if he could wait out in the jeep, since this made him feel sad. I was happy to unlock the jeep and let him go wait, just outside the glass office door, in our jeep, until my daughter and I got the cats turned over for their operation.

But, my wife's suggestion did remind me of that time in Panama. So I thought I'd tell you about it. Maybe you'll like the story.

Panama: About 6 mos. before we removed Noriega from power

Special Operations Command (SOCOM) had decided they'd like to submit each active duty A-Team to an annual examination, to be sure everyone was still tough enough to be on a team. (Or, something like that. It never made much sense to those of us on teams.) Thus,SOCOM officers at Ft. Bragg were busily formulating different events each team should have to accomplish, in order to be "certified" each year. And, part of that formulation, was seeing how well their plans actually played-out on the ground.

So, since my unit had been sent to Fort Sherman in Panama for six months as "Security Enhancement," a small gaggle of officers had come down from Bragg, to where we were staying in The Bat Cave -- an old gun battery along the approaches to the canal.  The place earned its nickname because, when it was first opened up, artillery simulators were thrown inside to clear out any animals lurking in the gloom, and about a million bats came exploding out the metal hatch entrance ala the opening to that old cartoon Scooby Doo.

These SOCOM wunderkind didn't stay in the Bat Cave with us, of course. They had a house on one of the posts. And, they had come up with a plan (formulated back at Bragg) to have A-Teams in 7th Group run a night land navigation course -- using map and compass -- through the land navigation course that the Jungle Warfare School only used during daylight hours.

And, no. They were not impressed by the fact that we'd been practicing day and night land navigation through the jungle, ever since we'd arrived in-country a few weeks earlier. They had planned to use this specific course. And, this specific course was the one that would be used.

This didn't surprise my other team members, because they'd been participants in a 20-mile rucksack run, up in Bragg, a few months before I hit the team, for very similar reasons.  And they got pretty surly when they talked about the experience.

Not that they objected to running twenty miles up a dirt road, while carrying a 75-pound rucksack. The thing they constantly griped about was that a SOCOM lieutenant -- who had never been through the Q-Course, let alone spent any time on an A-Team (this was an important part of the litany which had to be gone over each time the story was recounted) -- had insisted on monitoring their speed for the entire distance. This, in his mind, meant climbing into the back of a HUMVEE, and having the driver hold his speed down to the A-Team's pace -- which would have been okay, if he'd kept the jeep at the rear of the column. Instead, he insisted on leading the column with his jeep just a few feet in front of the lead man. Which, meant the team ate dust for every inch of those twenty miles.

The only thing that made them happy, when recalling this incident, was the recollection that certain team members had subsequently bumped into the lieutenant in a bar called "The Pub" -- a basement beer joint in Fayetteville, which was an old-time SF hangout. After that encounter, the SOCOM lieutenant in question evidently decided to do his drinking somewhere else from then on.

For the land nav course, however, my A-Team was not the group in the barrel. This "honor" fell on six members of another A-Team with us. Those six had to navigate the course.

The guys on my team were all designated to help set up and operate the course. We'd been permitted to wear our LBE (Load Bearing Equipment: a pistol belt and suspenders, which held magazine pouches, a field dressing, strobe light, two one-quart canteens and a small butt-pack in which I kept some food, a hammock and other sundries). My M-9 Baretta rode low on my right hip in a knock-off Eagle quick-draw rig, which -- as had been "suggested" on my first day in the team room -- I bought from the team (ODA 711).  I also had two railroad fusies in the cargo pocket on the left side of my BDU pants.

Railroad fusies are basically over-sized highway flares, used to signal trains during emergencies. To use one, you tear off the top, then turn it around and strike it against the portion below, which is a lot like striking a matchbook across the top of a giant match.

The guys running the compass course had issued a pair of fusies to everyone manning a point, since we'd each be alone, ostensibly so we could use it to signal somebody if we ran into trouble. However, when questioned, the guys running the course admitted they had no idea how anybody else was supposed to see a railroad fusie burning out in the middle of the nowhere, amid such dense foliage.

I was very familiar with railroad fusies, since we used them to initiate certain charges in the Engineer portion of the Q-Course.  And, I followed what I'd been taught there, loosening the top on one, so that I could snap it into life lickety-split if needed.

The guys in charge then led us down a trail and dropped us each off at our points. Some of those SOCOM guys were supposed to pass back through to take up positions on the trail, between points, to ensure the six-man team being tested on the compass course didn't use the trail. None of them passed back my way, however.

My point was located in a small clearing (15-or-20-foot diameter) amid deep undergrowth, with a high canopy above me, and a river about twenty feet downhill from where I strung a hammock between two trees. We were dropped off just before dusk, and the guys being tested would start out at 11:00 pm "to be sure it's dark enough".

That has to be one of the stupidest things I've ever heard, because once the sun goes down in a place like that, it's dark as the inside of a cave. The overhead canopy blotted out any starlight, and I had no fire since that would have helped the guys following the compass course to find my position. The nearest person to me was at the next point, about four kilometers away.

I was permitted to use a red-lens flashlight, if I wanted light, but had to turn it off if I heard the land nav group approaching, so they wouldn't see it.  I didn't use mine much, because the open area of the river let in some ambient light from the night sky.  Thus, I could see most of my little clearing, right up to the line of dense foliage that curtained-off three sides of it.

Opening my butt-pack, I ate an MRE and strung-up my hammock.

A little after midnight, monkeys got busy throwing things at me (I won't tell you what, 'cause it's pretty gross), and this drove me out of my hammock. Unfortunately, it didn't stop the monkeys, who continued to bombard me. Finally, driven to sufficient rage, I pulled out my M-9 Baretta and -- before I could threaten to shoot any monkeys (an empty threat anyway) -- they all screeched and rustled away through the trees.

I guessed they'd seen a sidearm before.

But, maybe I was wrong.

I put my M-9 back into my rig, and snapped the thumb catch.. I opened a paperback and struggled to read, using a red-lens mini-mag flashlight, but my attention was arrested by a crunching of heavy feet and the sound of something moving through the underbrush. It sounded like the six land nav guys might be approaching my point, so I twisted my mini-mag flashlight to extinguish the red glow.

I stood in the dark and waited.  But, the movement had stopped.  I could hear the river washing slowly by behind me, and a distant splash that I equated with a Cayman entering the water some distance downstream.

In front of me, however, there was only silence. & Stillness. Maybe the land navigation group had stopped to do a map check, not realizing how close they were to the objective. I stood and listened, peering into the black-green before me. I didn't even have a cigar to smoke, because the guys running the course thought the odor might give my position away.

Then, the sound of stealthy movement came to me from within the undergrowth. If this was the land navigation group, and they were looking for my point, they were pretty good at the sneaky Pete thing, no easy trick in such dense foliage.

I thought that was a bit odd, since there was no real reason for them to be stealthy, unless they just wanted to practice their silent night movement. And, these guys hadn't impressed me as the sort who would combine two types of training into one. They were more like a pack of jokers, freeloaders almost, except that most of them were old time SF guys who knew the ropes so well that they just couldn't stand being forced to toe the line on what they saw as a silly land navigation course. (And, quite frankly, I didn't blame them.) I wondered if they might have decided they were close to the point, and that it might be fun to jump out of the darkness at me. After all, I was a newbie. I was only a few weeks out of the Q-Course, and this was my first trip on an A-Team. We didn't really know each other.

The movement inside the undergrowth began circling to my right. I saw some branches bending as if someone down low were shouldering them aside, and wondered if the group had missed my point. Then it stopped again, and I heard something strange.

It sounded sort of like someone with a low voice emitting a long, low, quiet belch. You know the kind -- it makes sort of an elongated low-pitched burbling noise. This was like that, but different in a way I find hard to explain.

Bushes rustled, and I saw branches quiver as the invisible noisemaker approached me.

Something about that low, quiet rumble spoke to a part of me that lived far down in my spine. My body tensed on its own as adrenaline electrified my system. Eyes snapped wide open, my ears seemed to grow as if trying to scoop in the merest hint of noise and transmit it strait to my brain for instant analysis. Maybe three feet of foliage separated my tiny clearing from whatever was slowly creeping in through the undergrowth.

I drew my M-9, coming up in a two-handed grip pointed at the location where the bent stalks indicated the intruder was located. & But, I couldn't fire, because it might be one of the land nav guys trying to scare me. If I put a nine-ball round through somebody, even if he recovered, the guys on my team would never let me live it down.

Then, I remembered the railroad fusies in my cargo pocket. I whipped one out with my left hand, holding the M-9 with just my right. A second later, it was tangle-finger time as I quickly fumbled with both hands, to tear the fusie cap the rest of the way off and strike it, while trying to keep my M-9 (which I had a death grip on) trained on-target.

Whatever was out there was closing in through the underbrush. When the fusie burst into life, I caught a glimpse of quick motion out of the corner of my eye -- something jerking back into the foliage. I don't know what it was, but it looked like a giant paw to me. Of course, I'd seen a Jaguar at the Jungle Warfare zoo, a few days before, so maybe my mind was playing tricks on me. The paws on that thing were the size of manhole covers.

Whatever was out there made a scrambling noise as it backed up through the underbrush.

But, it didn't leave.

The noise and waving branches began circling to my right again, a little farther out, probably to stay outside the circle of light thrown by the fusie.. Whatever it was, was maintaining a fairly constant distance, though, as it moved. I pivoted my body to follow it, keeping the blazing fusie out and high, and the M-9 trained where I thought the base of those bending branches would be.

The thing moved around me until it got pretty close to the river. Then it stopped again. A moment later, it began circling back left. I pivoted myself the other way, eyes straining to peer into the green curtain that masked it.

Suddenly, the sound of running feet and snapping branches came from my far left.

The thing in the undergrowth heard it, too.  It stopped, went silent again.

A moment later, I identified the sound coming in from the left. It was the group of six -- the guys following the land navigation course. Instead of following compass headings that would have forced them to bust brush every step of the way, they had navigated to the trail and were running along it. In step, no less!

A second later, the thing out in front of me burst from cover and crashed away through the undergrowth. It was loud as heck, sounded as if a high-intensity dust devil had whipped up and torn its way through the jungle. Snapping branches and scattering animals as it went.


A man's voice called, "Whoa!  What the #*@% was that?" Then the Team Sergeant of the six guys sort of tripped into my little clearing, the other five guys following close on his heals. The Team Sergeant saw me and blurted, "Hill!  What the hell just lit out, out of here?"  He and the other guys dropped their rucks on the ground to take a breather.

I shook my head and holstered my M-9. One of the guys saw it and asked, "What happened? Why'd you draw your weapon?"

I explained and asked, "You guys weren't messing with me, were you?"

The guys all shook their heads.  "We weren't messing with you.  Not that we wouldn't mess with you, like that.  But, we didn't do it this time!  And we sure as hell would have told you it was us when you whipped your weapon out!"

They asked which way it had gone, and pointed.

The Team Sergeant laughed.  "Thank God the trail goes this way instead!"

I looked at him. "How can you guys follow the trail? The guys who came down from SOCOM, to set this up, said they'd be sitting on unknown trail points to catch you, if you did?"

The Team Sergeant shook his head. "Those SOCOM garri-trooopers aren't comfortable anywhere outside their offices up in Bragg. They're not about to campout on a jungle trail at night. They'd wet their pants!"

"But, how'd you know ..."

"We took off, following the azimuth, then we circled back around through the jungle, crawled up and did a recon on 'em. They're all up by the Start/Finish point drinking coffee. We shook a few branches at 'em, and they just about jumped out of their skin!"

Everyone laughed.

Except me. "You weren't 'shaking branches' at me, just now, by any chance?"

The team members all shook their heads and swore they hadn't. The Team Sergeant said, "Look, Hill, we just came from over there." He hooked a thumb over his shoulder at the trail they'd come from, over on my left. "And, you say that thing took off that way." He pointed out in front, a little to the right. "Whatever that was, it had nothing to do with us, buddy. I swear. And, we know you weren't imagining things; we heard it tear out of here."

I nodded. The guys saddled-up. They had to run the course with a 75-pound rucksack, full combat load of ammo, plus all their weapons. Once they were up and ready, they started off, running up the trail.

I took down my hammock and packed up my butt pack, then walked up the trail toward the Start/Finish point. A couple of kilometers later, the guy from the next point caught up to me. As we walked together, he ;said, "Man, that was messed up. They stuck me down in a swamp with Cayman all around. It was crazy!"

I nodded. "Yeah, that was pretty wacky, buddy."

The next day, we weer informed that Jungle Warfare instructors had encountered Jaguar prints in the Land Navigation area. It was suggested we avoid the place for a while.

I, for one, happily agreed not to go back there any time soon.

See ya' in two weeks (if I can get out of fuse box hell),
Dixon

10 comments:

Fran Rizer said...

Dixon, if you can endure and survive the second part of this blog, you can deal with that electrical problem and a small case of writer's block about nonfiction. Glad you got your dad's trike and your cats fixed. Now enjoy Quentin and your Friday!
PS - Don't mean to sound like I'm scolding. Enjoyed the read.

David Dean said...

Great story, Dixon! It brought back memories.

I got to do one of those night time land nav courses at Bragg once, sans jaguars and caimans. Which was probably a good thing, as I somehow led us knee-deep into a swamp which wasn't on the map. I swear it wasn't. If there had been gators we would have been in deep kempchee.

Good luck with the fuses!

Dixon Hill said...

David, that sounds like the SF landnav site near Bragg, which has Bones Fork Creek. Unfortunately, it's not a creek; it's a swamp. LOL

Glad I could initiate crazy memories, and it's nice to see the phrase "deep kempchee" again. LOL

--Dix

Dixon Hill said...

Aw, Fran, I knew you weren't scolding me. You're the everready battery bunny of encouragement. I think we all know that. And, that's a very nice person to be.

--Dix

David Dean said...

I knew it! I knew there wasn't a swamp on that map! Vindicated after all these years! Thanks, Dix.

Dixon Hill said...

No problem, David. I remember it well, myself. There's a part of that swamp in which (I learned by discovery) the bottom suddenly drops off. One step you're on fairly supportive mud. Next step, you drop under water! LOL

And, what a name for a creepy swamp area like that: "Bones Fork" LOL

R.T. Lawton said...

Dix, great story. Sounds like you could have a good second career writing suspense or horror stories.
Night time is funny in the bush, sometimes you don't see or hear what's out there, but find tracks or traces later, sometimes you think you see or hear what's not really there, and sometimes the darkness seems to have the brain magnify whatever really is out there. It's been part of a primeval survival situation ever since man came down out of the trees to walk the earth. Gets the adrenaline going.
Next time you can't think of anything to write for SS, just throw in another one of these jungle tales.

Dixon Hill said...

Thanks, R.T., I will!

And, on a different note, I'm glad to say I finally managed to wrestle the fuse box into submission.

David Edgerley Gates said...

Good story. Larger members of the cat family, a jaguar or mountain lion, say, leave a footprint about the size of your hand, i.e, between six and eight inches across, BTW. At least you got the electrical sorted out.

Dixon Hill said...

Well, David, you're probably right about the paw size. But, I gotta say, the paws on the Jaguar I saw at the JW zoo really did look as big as manhole covers to me. In fact, one of my teammates said, "Man! Check out those paws. One swipe and your whole torso'd be opened up. Tarzan's not gonna win that fight!"

On the other hand, I was surprised by nearly everything about that jaguar. He was so very long and short, yet muscular and solid. In a way, his body structure reminded me of a giant wiener dog on steroids, if it had spent a few years as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s workout buddy. Lol While the jaguar was much larger than a wiener dog, the ratio of body length vs. the short legs seemed quite similar. The head, of course, was another matter entirely!