I crawled to the lip of the berm and fell straight into an empty hole that had to be six feet deep if it was an inch. Fusner cascaded down upon me with Nguyen slipping down next to him. The sound of the drums and the NVA fifty followed us right down into the bottom of the hole. The Ontos was not firing because it was set up with its flechette loaded rifles aimed to cover the bridge, which meant it could not fire at all until the area was clear of whatever survivors there might be from Kilo company trying to get across the bridge. I could not ignore the rapid thumping of the fifty-caliber. It was like each explosion, powering each round, ate into my very being. I climbed to see what I could see from the top of the hole, but the night consumed almost everything except the ceaseless arc of green tracers coming from the 50.
I ached to call in a 175 mm howitzer mission. The company was dug in, but the material of the bank consisted of soft and loamy dried mud. Even dug in, the protection the fox holes provided was next to nothing when pound-sized chunks of hot torn metal would surely be flying around. All of I could think of was how to stop the .50 caliber from decimating Kilo even more than it already had. I could see nothing of the far bank. Even the water heaping up and flying over the top of the upside-down Russian tank was invisible, although I knew it was still there. The scene burned into my mind, almost as if it was lit by huge Hollywood Klieg lights, although there was next to nothing for me to really ‘see.’ I stared into the dark, listening to the machine gun fire, the horrible drums, and feeling a sense of loss and guilt so powerfully that I could not move. I was not frozen in terror. I’d been frozen in terror before. I was frozen by something else I couldn’t understand. I was frozen by a raw cloying agony of not wanting to be alive anymore. I’d been in the A Shau Valley for about three weeks, and I’d retreated up, down and back and forth through it more times than I could count. I had not planned or provided for this, the worst retreat of my life, with any kind of an active or passive thought at all. I realized that I’d thrown myself into being too busy working out a technical problem to pay attention to the fact that the stupendous size and potential effects of the overall situation needed to fully occupy me, and not the detail. Anyone in the company capable could have made the swim out to the bridge, but I’d wanted to do it myself. Anyone could have worked with the Gunny to secure the chain, and then supervised the Ontos bridge operation, but I’d enjoyed the brush blocking avoidance and temporary escape it gave me instead of paying attention to what was happening on the larger scale. I’d led nobody anywhere, instead I allowed myself to be diverted, or in reality, diverted myself from what I should have been doing, and consequently, nearly a whole company of men was having to pay for my potential failure to pay attention with their lives.
I stared fixedly out at the end of the bridge, where the Ontos sat, not twenty feet from the rear edge. Twenty feet. My mind rolled the number I’d come up with out of the blue, around and around in my head. The distance I was approximating for the Ontos to reach the end of the bridge was about the same distance that the bridge was wide. I knew the Ontos was a bit less than ten feet wide itself.