It was summer, thank God; otherwise the weather would have been miserable. But summer brought its own discomforts: mosquitoes, insects, hot weather, and humidity. Of them all, it was the humidity which was the worst. I could stand the blood sucking ticks infesting my body; crawling all over me at night; each morning I would find myself removing upwards of fifty of them – some tiny pinpricks and dots, others huge ‘dog ticks’ which were bloated from having fed on my body.
The problem was the ticks were dead. I couldn’t back them out to save my life. Something about my body – it had started when I was about sixteen years old – killed the blood sucking insects. And not some of them – all of them. In boot camp I had made money by betting my blood would knock the big ol’ “Tiger Striped” mosquitoes dead. I would let them come and bite me – settling on my arm – and they would feed, their big green and black striped bodies swelling – and then they would fall over comatose, or even dead. (I don’t know; I didn’t have the tools – nor time – to test them.) Something about my blood stream – chemicals, perhaps? – I spent a lot of time working with chemicals, and in the Army labs . . . who knows.
Anyway, on this particular mission we are on an island – and we are not alone. There are three of ‘us’ and dozen of ‘them’. And it’s not really an island – it’s more like two. Like a giant dumbbell, it has a narrow strip of sand connecting the two knobs of pine and brush encrusted land. The two sandbars stretch towards each other like tapering fingers; narrowing to a thin underwater crown in the middle where you can wade across – if you dare. Sometimes when the water goes down you can see where this was once one piece of land, but tides and currents have cut it in half. The sandbar is sparsely sprinkled with narrow trees and thin leafed scrub which peters out as the water begins; the middle of the sandbar dives beneath the lapping waves and the brush becomes so thin you can see right through it – feet and yards separate the stems.
Our mission is really quite simple. Infiltrate, attack, escape. Or don’t escape. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is taking “them” down.
However . . . this is a training mission; not a real one. We are in substandard gear: combat boots and jungle greens; a hat on our head. Not much else. Got a pocket knife in my pocket. Nothing else. Nothing at all. And ‘they‘ are just a bunch of kids, really; just greenhorns; this is their first real ‘mission’, their first time in the swamp . . .
Apparently we are to go ‘gung-ho’ on this mission; someone succeeded in leaving (or losing) all our gear behind. WE have to go it alone . . . and someone has to hold the boat and ‘base’. This is as planned; and what we were trained for (in part, and a very small part at that; we were trained to know much more than this. Much, much more.)
So I leave one of my men with the boat (it’s pulled up in the weeds; appropriately camouflaged – our Marine is waiting in the reeds a few dozen yards away, ready to open fire if someone comes up to steal it) . . .
And I direct my other man to go to the edge of the island – expose himself; just some darts and dashes through the brush where (if they are looking) – the ‘others’ will see him; keeping their attention on that part of the island . . . while I make my way behind . . .
Now . . . I’m a Marine and a soldier – was a soldier as a child, so being a ‘Marine’ is literally “child’s play” to me – recalling old memories and strategies I didn’t know I have . . . but do.
So I know: the sandbar is going to be guarded. ‘They’ are going to have someone watching it to see if someone on ‘our’ side is using it to sneak over to theirs. And sure enough, as I’m creeping and watching (with no intention whatsoever of using the sandbar route, though my ‘partner’ in crime is sniffing and snooping at it as though he intends on using it) – I see ‘him’ – one of the others: a shifting mass in the bushes; a barely seen sort of silhouette that seems like leaves . . . but doesn’t. He’s done a fine job of hiding himself . . . but he’s forgotten to break up his outline. As low as I am I can see through the screen of leaves and he is outlined (albeit roughly) against the sky through the brush. To just look at him sideways or looking down you would think he was simply a thicker clump of brush – one within another – but looking up from ground level he stands clear. I can see him as low to the ground as I am.
But I go on; I move on – I don’t want him seeing me . . . so I dart in a low crouch, taking advantage of the weeds and cover to the other side of the island where the screen of trees on the spit of land separating the two islands hides me from his view. Dropping to my belly, I slither across the land – high crawl, low crawl, stooped run – get to the edge of the foliage, where I drop from view again . . . slithering like a snake down to the water . . . wishing I had a rifle in my hand.
But “we’re” not allowed to use them; not on this mission. On this mission I’m supposed to ‘roust’ the enemy with my bare hands . . . steal a weapon or something . . . be creative. Improvise. Because I’m not just a Marine – I’m a tough one. A top one. One of the guys you don’t want to meet in a dark alley when you’re up to something no good.
It’s gonna be difficult, I’m thinking, crawling through the sand towards the water, puzzling out the puzzle, staring through the weeds; the waves now gently lapping at my side; the sun falling from its crest towards the west – gotta get this mission done . . .
So I slip in, full uniform and everything . . . slipping into the water like a stream; a breeze; hardly a ripple or wave . . . lower than the grass that grows in thick clumps on this beach in this swamp in this land . . .
As I go I select a reed; not a tall one; not a long one, and one not too thick . . .
I want something inconspicuous.
So with this reed in my hand I head out into deeper water – for I know: if they have someone on the beach watching this side of the sandbar they will see my shadow angling under the water if I get too close to land. I need to go further out – so that it takes a steeper angle – so that I can hide and swim . . .
Swimming underwater, breathing through this reed; this stem.
And I’m hoping no one notices this: a single stem traveling against the current through the waves a hundred feet out. I’m hoping it leaves no wake while I flutter my boot laden feet; feel my uniform trying to drag me under . . .
The water was green that day. I remember that: ‘swimming’ on my back, the reed tightly tucked between my lips, staring up through the pale green water at the shimmering star of a sun glimmering down – little flecks of vegetation and bits of debris’ floating past as I swung my arms and fluttered my leaden feet, desperately trying to go on.
My body felt like iron; my head began to spin and thump; it was hard swimming with my boots and uniform on. But I kept on going . . . wondering how far I’d come. I didn’t want to surface too soon – I didn’t want to drag myself up on the beach to find myself on that sandbar separating the islands – then the game would be up. I’d be caught and there’d just be two of my men to accomplish this thing. Best I get it done alone. The way I had planned all along . . .
So I redoubled my efforts and struggled on . . .
And I got tired.
So tired that I began I considering . . .
Not . . . going . . . on . . .
How much easier it would be to simply give up, go ahead and drown, a voice began whispering in my head. Why not give in? Just let the water have you . . . there’s no reason to keep moving on . . .
And it was right. I had no one to love; no one who loved me. I had no reason to keep going on. No love; not really; not anymore. I’d given up love a long time ago; swearing off ‘love’ until the end of time. No reason to keep on surviving . . . no reason to be. My parents might feel some grief . . . but who cares? They’d get over it. Everyone would. I had done nothing special . . . there was no reason to keep on struggling to survive . . .
And even this mission: it was bullshit. This wasn’t a mission: it was a training exercise, and not a very good one at that. I was the only one taking this thing seriously; I always did. When it came to missions – getting my job done – I always took my job very seriously (though I might joke – and complain – just like any other good Marine should – or would.)
And I was tired – so tired of swimming. But even more than that – I was tired of everything. Tired of life, tired of living . . . I kept swimming, thinking, growing weaker . . . and I gave in.
Sinking, I watched the water grow greener, darker; sinking, I did not care.
And then it came.
All my regrets – not for what I’d done, but left undone; not of what I had been, but for what I had not yet become . . . so much of ‘me’ was missing; buried inside . . . and there was that novel, the book I wanted to write, calling me. Believe it or not, it called, begging for me to finish this thing. A story of love; the hope of love, the death of love . . . so much in me, begging to get out . . . despairing because I knew it would never be, not with the way I am . . .
And the acceptance began. This is it, the end, I thought, watching the green grow darker. Screw it – I’m all done.
But then . . . those regrets surged within me. Faces swam. I was not done; not just yet. I had a mission to do. Not just for ‘them’ – but myself. Get those things done. Then I could die without any regret. Then I could ‘move on’.
So I gathered my determination, pushing at the water once again – the reed was below the surface . . . flailing, I rose, my boots dragging me down . . . but I could feel that now; that seed of determination growing . . .
And since hope is hope, I struggled on . . . flailing in that green water. The surface was calm, but not underneath, that thin reed slowly proceeding against the waves; me struggling to hold it there – struggling not to sink and drown, not to give in and go under both at the same time . . .
And then I felt the sand; the dirt, the bottom hitting the heel of my outstretched boot – I kept reaching down, trying to touch bottom, until I finally did – the reed still poking (just barely!) above the surface as I kept on . . .
and I moved on.
Creeping up the beach – so low, slinking like a snake – the once so vital reed now tossed aside. I had come up midway on the island, towards its rounded side, and the beach was littered with rocks and weeds – low growing, but higher as I moved up the bank. The bank soon gave way to a depression, and I found myself crawling – low crawl, for straight ahead I could ‘see’ my enemy – less with my eyes than with sound, though I could see the occasional silhouette flicker along the beach of a cove that nestled in the island’s side.
I crawled carefully through the mud and slime. The forest was thick and wild; I crawled beneath low hung bushes and thorny vine. As I was watching my opponents I just happened to look down where I placing my hand . . .
There right beneath it was curled a coil of sleeping copperhead – only about an inch around. He was in a perfect coil; his little head stuck up from the middle like a green arrowhead, a tapering finger. I watched. No tongue was moving, I froze without a sound.
Carefully I backed my hand away – it was only an inch or so above his snout. Had I set my hand down – even today I find myself shaking my head. It was hours to the nearest aid station; another hour or so to antivenom – had I not looked down at just that moment; had I gone ahead and placed my hand down, thought and sight unseen – I would have been bitten by a venomous snake. As it was I was presented with an ultimate chance and a risk; both at the same time, by this snake barring my path and blocking me from this mission of mine.
So I took out my old pocketknife and I cut myself a vine. Then casting around, I located a small limb on the ground. Quickly fashioning a small loop and tying the vine the the end of the stick, I made me a small ‘snake stick’ to catch this snake with. It was a short one – no more than a foot long – and I was barely risen on my elbows in the mud – but sneaking a quick look towards my opposition, I could see no threat there. The ‘boys’ were busy fishing (or trying to) in the cove while others took position around a small boat – and there were others gathered around a small fire they’d made on the beach in preparation for the fish they’d cook tonight . . .
They were ‘partying’, in other words, and this old tired Marine was going to teach them a thing or two about ‘dedication to mission’ and doing things right – no matter where you are or what the mission was. Even a bullshit mission like this one. The fact was: they were cocky, overconfident Marines; confidence in their capabilities (whereas to my eyes they had none – or little, anyway. They could shoot – I’d give them that – but the time had come to teach them a lesson in improvisation . . . and they knew the odds too well: a dozen against two or three. They had become over cocky. They would leave being Marines. Because a real Marine knows: you can lose. So you had better be careful. All of the time.
Turning my attention from the unsuspecting Marines before me (they were about twenty-five yards away) – I began lowering my noose around my equally unsuspecting partner in crime – the little snake I’d found.
As I began aiming the noose around his head it touched him – right on the nose! I froze; the stick hovering there – shivering slightly, but the noose held still. The snake, awakened, flickered his tongue and rose up! – directly through the waiting loop as I watched him; it was like an Indian trick. Here’s this little snake – this little cottonmouth – all curled up in a perfect coil, his head in the middle – sticking straight up, mind you! – and when I touch him his head rises up; the rest of his body remains still . . .
Until, that is, that I judge it is time to catch him, and I snatch the end of that vine tight.
The loop – thick as yarn, hairy with broken fiber (I had twisted it ’round and ’round for flexibility) – closes around his neck like a clamp, and I’ve got . . .
Snake on a stick. A dancing one, at that! And he’s dancing for his life while I’m dancing for mine (being careful! Of course! To keep the noise down . . .)
And then the stick breaks. Go figure – that’s what I had figured when I first picked it up. It was a rotten stick on the ground – in the woods, no less – and a swamp. To say the least it was rotten. And it broke right in the middle.
And boy, that snake was mad. And agitated. And several other things.
So . . . being the trusty boy that I am – I whip out my trusty pocketknife (it’s as dull as a thread) – and stab it down at his head – pinning him in the mud, just behind the neck, while the body writhes on . . .
and sawing and sawing I saw his little ol’ son-of-a-biscuit eater’s head right on off . . .
and then I grab this thing: this swirling whirling mass of body . . .
and I creep on . . .
and then arriving at the thin screen of bushes separating ‘us’ from them – I stand up! Snake in my hand (and a writhing one at that!) – scream! A ferocious SCREAM! – and throw this snake at them; the crowd that’s gathered around that old campfire (they’ve got some fish frying by now) . . . and it lands among them; twisting and writhing in the sand . . .
and I cry:
and they go running in all directions . . . dropping their weapons; leaving them behind – a few go for the boat; end up swamping it trying to get end (there’s too many of them scrambling at one time) . . . others go running, panicking into the woods . . .
and a few – a precious few – go on trying to walk across water to reach the land . . .
It was a total success and a total rout . . . by one man.
I felt my success that day.
Not only in my mission – but in saving my life. Because in that lake, in that time – when I was most giving up hope; when I knew I could no longer go on . . .
I had experienced what it was like to die: recognizing that thing, facing your doubts, your fears – your regrets and things . . .
and that final acceptance about moving on . . .
right before it occurred to me: I have a choice in this thing – a last gasp sort of choice – but a choice to struggle on . . .
or give up and just die ‘right here’; drowning in some unknown pond . . .
You know which one I made.
The struggle to go on.
(*there’s a symbology in all that ‘calm surface’ and the reed; and the struggle that was going on – but I’m going to leave you to figure it out . . . give ya a hint: . . . calm water; disturbed mind, a struggle for life, to move against the current . . . . and the reed: life, or our connection to –it which oddly enough ties into another story we have, one of garden hoses and trenches dug in the sands of time . . .)