Ted Lavender was a bundle of nerves. He had always been that way. When he was in his teens he was so jumpy that birds flying near him made him nervous. He was no better now, but he learned how to deal with it. He always carried with him a more than adequate supply of tranquilizers, and few ounces of dope as well.
He looked around and quietly chuckled at the irony of his situation. He was a hunted man. There were people all around him that wanted to kill him. They wanted to kill him and the men he was with, because they were killers themselves.
Ted thought about death a lot, and was always dying. If it wasn?t a stomach ache about to turn fatal, it was that his heart fluttered every now and then, meaning to him that it could halt its rhythm at any moment. His doctor had humored him for a while, but soon tired of the almost incessant visits. In his Junior year of high school, tranquilizers were prescribed to him. They were at least a legal way of calming his nerves. He had started smoking dope a year and a half before that. It hadn?t been a perfect cure, but neither were the tranquilizers. At least the combination of the two allowed him some amount of function in this violent setting.
Ted was tired. He was always tired. They marched all of the time, up hills, down hills, through swamps, on flats, everywhere. Sometime the foliage was thick, other times there were no obstacles. It didn?t really matter. The were simply walking- or humping as they called it- on and on, day in and day out. It wasn?t something he hated. He had been doing it so long that he almost couldn?t imagine what it would be like to sit all day. On the few nights that he dreamed, he often dreamed of walking. It almost became a part of you, a part of your nature. You were a walker. That was your purpose here- that, and thinking. Ted thought about death a lot. He was surrounded, possessed, and obsessed with it. He constantly wondered how it would finally catch him. He didn?t know how it would happen, but he was almost certain every morning he woke up that this was his last day on earth. It was the same when he went to bed. Would he die in his sleep? He hoped so. He didn?t want it to be painful. Would he die in a firefight, crying, wetting, and soiling himself in the dirt? Would it be quick and painless, or would he slowly bleed to death, confessing his sins to the darkening sky?
They stopped marching in the late afternoon. Ted popped a tranquilizer and dug his foxhole. He made himself as comfortable as he could in it, then closed his eyes and listened. There was no wind. The other men quietly joked and told stories, reminiscing about good times and hoping for the future. Humor was an important part of their lives. It was the only part of their lives they wanted to recognize, or remember. The same jokes were told over and over again, but they never lost their novelty. The same was true for the stories. When one person told a story, the others listened and then laughed as if they?d never heard it before. Ted took part in storytelling from time to time. In these moments, everything would fade away and he would once again be in high school, hiding in the boys bathroom, smoking it up with his buddies. But once the stories were told the silence returned, so did his fear.
He was awakened in the night by Henry Dobbins, the machine gunner - it was his turn at watch. Leaning against a tree, partly awake with his rifle between his knees, he thought about his childhood. Fear would keep him awake at night. He would lie there quietly, gazing out the window at the stars. It was best when the moon was there. It was the one comforting thing in the vicious night. It watched over him with a saddened gaze. It felt sorry for him. It wanted to gather him up and cradle him till morning. Sleep came more easily to him on those nights.
There was only darkness this night. He looked at the stars above him, staring at him like eyes, blinking from time to time. He could see only a portion of the sky. It was choked by the blackness of unlit trees, grabbing at it and trying to take it away. The darkness wanted him. He could feel it swimming all around him, caressing his face, wrapping around his body, trying to smother his soul. The more afraid he became, the paler and whiter he turned, inviting the darkness to torment him further.
He sat against the tree shivering and sweating. His eyes darted about the darkness, searching endlessly for that reason to curl into a ball and beg for his life. It never came, but the next watch did. He quietly slipped over to the foxhole that contained PFC Kiowa, and forcibly pulled him from slumber. As the private slowly became aware of his surroundings, he cursed under his breath and took his post. Lavender immediately popped a tranquilizer before settling into his foxhole for the remainder of the night.
The sun rose and they humped. Their orders were to search out and destroy the VC tunnel complexes in the area south of Chu Lai. One man would be selected from the group to crawl into the tunnel with a flashlight and Lieutenant Cross? .45. As nightmares go, this was the epitome of terror, especially for Ted. Inside the tunnels, the earth seemed to push on you from all sides as you inched along, praying that you would soon find the end. But like everything else, you did it because it was done.
It was still and very hot as the men kneeled around the hole in the ground. There were seventeen men in the platoon. They each drew a number from one to seventeen, the winner being the man with the highest number. Each man held his breath as he drew his luck. What that number was dictated whether that breath would be exhaled in a sigh of relief or a curse. Lee Strunk cursed that day. He grabbed the gun and the flashlight and crawled into the hole as if there was a hot apple pie on the other end.
Ted stepped from foot too foot nervously, his eyes darting about the woods and into the darkness of the tunnel. He popped a tranquilizer and walked a few yards into the forest to pee. Everything was watching him. The knots in the trees squinted to fix their glare upon him. Even the sun watched him with malicious intent.
As he stood there relieving himself, he again thought about death. He imagined being shot right there, right then. He almost expected it. Nothing happened. There was only the sound of liquid falling on leaves. He shuddered, zipped up, and walked back towards the platoon. From a distance he looked into the darkness of the tunnel. In an instant the blackness lunged at him and snatched up his soul, before he could even scream. He fell quick and heavy. He never expected death to come with such cunning. It had watched and waited and crept through the daylight. It had poked and prodded and terrorized before finally making its move.
Ted Lavender, shot in the head by a sniper, lay dead on the ground outside of Than Khe.