“The Year of the Rat” or, “Sappers in the Wire”

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

I’m not a particularly complex guy – my approach to life is pretty simple: I try to make the best of any situation. My tour in Vietnam was really no different. I can’t say it was my first choice of a place to spend 1971-72, but I decided pretty early in my tour that I could spend my year “in country” terrified and miserable, or, I could do my job and take it all in my stride. The latter approach seemed to make the most sense, seeing as how I was not at liberty to pack up and go home.
I was stationed at Camp Eagle with the 101st Airborne division near Hue Phu Bai. As an Air Force Forward Air Controller, I felt a little out of my element living there with the Army “grunts.” But, in retrospect, I guess it really didn’t matter much who I lived with – I was in Vietnam. It wasn’t supposed to be a picnic.
Camp Eagle was flat, hot and completely devoid of vegetation. I don’t remember trees or grass or anything but dirt, dust and mud – mostly dust. The summer months brought endless, sweltering heat, punctuated by rain that never seemed to completely quench the dry, thirsty air closing in around us. When moisture finally did put in a determined appearance, my little olive drab world became an ocean of mud and slime. Then, just as quickly, the whole mess baked back into the endless cloud of dust that dogged us endlessly, night and day.
That was Vietnam. That was my life. Trucks, tanks and jeeps trundled down the unpaved roads at all hours and in all conditions, kicking up the dry, powdery dirt and coating everything from equipment to people in a bland skim of brown.
As far as the heat and the weather conditions were concerned, I guess it reminded me a little of Florida. Of course that’s where the similarities stopped. All things considered, I would have preferred to be in Florida, where, by and large, people didn’t want to kill me.
Still, my small town, midwestern upbringing goaded me to make the best of things – even my accommodations, which left a lot to be desired.
Our hootch was like most of Camp Eagle’s “housing units” – it was an unassuming shack held together with plywood boards, tar-paper and corrugated metal. It wasn’t much, but it separated us from the elements – about as securely as our perimeter fence held back the North Vietnamese. It was uneasy security all the way around.
A door divided the living room and bathroom from the sleeping area, which lay down a long central hallway. Our four bedrooms were made out of the same thin plywood, and our privacy, such as it was, was protected by four flimsy plywood doors.
My personal wedge of space was eight feet long by six feet wide. It bore little resemblance to the bedrooms of my youth. It was just big enough for a beat-up metal bed and a “matching” gym locker. Over the bed hung a single bare lightbulb that swung freely from its electrical cord. A string dangled at arm’s length just above my head, allowing me to easily shut off my single source of light. It wasn’t the lap of luxury – not even close, but it looked pretty good after a tense, endless day flying mission upon mission.
Theoretically, our hootches were gun-free zones. We weren’t supposed to have any personal weapons with us, which was insane considering it was a war zone. Each time I flew a mission, I’d head over to the TOC and draw out my .38 and an AR-15. And each time I came back in one piece, I handed my guns back to the TOC.
So, theoretically we had no personal weapons. In reality, living in Vietnam with the army, we had more guns than you could shake a stick at. In my room I kept an AK-47 with a banana clip and a second banana clip taped to the first one. I also had my own personal arsenal of pistols and related weapons squirreled away for an emergency. But right next to my bed, set on full automatic, was the AK-47 assault rifle, fully loaded and cocked. Obviously, the “no weapons” edict wasn’t widely enforced.
Because of the presence of all those guns, the ironclad rule in our hootch – the one rule that no one ever violated – was that you never, ever walked into anyone else’s room at night. You just didn’t...unless, of course, you wanted to die. At that time, the camp was having problems with people probing the perimeter; there were rumors that sappers were trying to get into the base, and that some of them were “trusted” employees, like our hootch maids.
Sappers were enemy operatives who tried to infiltrate the camp and commit sabotage – or just kill people for the sheer pleasure of sending a message. All night long around the perimeter we’d hear shots being fired or flares going up because someone had tripped them from the outside. So the question wasn’t whether the enemy was trying to get in – but whether he’d make it. We felt relatively secure in the daylight, but after dark it was different. We had a saying: “Charlie controls the night,” and it was true. At night we didn’t even pretend that we owned anything; we just hunkered down and waited for dawn. It was, shall we say, unsettling.
About two months into my stay at Camp Eagle I came face to face with a living, breathing manifestation of all our nighttime fears. I’d finished my day’s work and gratefully collapsed into bed. As had been the case throughout my life, sleep came quickly and easily.
Then something – or someone – nudged me back into consciousness. I didn’t know how long I’d been asleep, or how deeply. I only knew that I was surrounded by inky blackness and, as I came more fully awake, that I wasn’t alone. Someone was rubbing my head.
I knew from stories around camp that a sapper didn’t just sneak in and kill you. No, that would have made sense in some odd, primitive mindset. But a sapper, before he slit your throat, would make sure you were fully awake so he could enjoy the look of terror as you took your last breath.
These grim tales crowded my mind, as my nerve endings came alive with adrenalin and fear. My first groggy thought was, “okay, it’s a dream,” but I knew this was wishful thinking cozying up to denial. I was awake all right – and scared to death. Meanwhile, the rubbing had intensified. I fought to control my breathing and develop some kind of action plan. I knew if I opened my eyes, the last thing I’d feel would be the feathery sweep of a knife across my neck. And the worst part: I didn’t know if the intruder was going to kill just me as a message to the others, or whether everyone else in the hootch was already dead, and I was the last guy to go. Time seemed to slow down and I could hear my pulse pounding in my ears. I was fully awake by now and doing everything in my power to appear fast asleep – make ‘em think I’m the world’s soundest sleeper, I reasoned.
As I constructed an action plan, I couldn’t help doubting my own ability to carry it out – geeze, I’m just a little guy from Tipp City, Ohio. Not exactly well-versed in hand-to-hand combat with seasoned guerilla fighters. But I figured I had to do something – no one would say that I went down without a fight. By this point I had decided everyone else in the hootch was probably dead. I knew that my AK-47 was beside the bed and I knew that a light bulb dangled just above me. I could tell that the guy rubbing my head – who was getting more urgent with each passing minute – was crouched somewhere by the head of my bed.
My plan wasn’t exactly comprehensive: I’d catch him off guard by rolling over as fast as I could, while yanking the light cord to momentarily blind him. Then I’d grab the AK-47 and wheel around, spraying bullets until I was certain the intruder was disabled...permanently.
Even in my fear-drenched state, it occurred to me that my bullets would also pierce the plywood boards that separated me from my hootchmates. Although I was pretty certain everyone else was already dead, I did resolve to try and direct my bullet spray above the height of their beds.
Finally, as the rubbing reached a crescendo of urgency, I screwed up my courage and energy – and exploded out of bed. With previously untapped dexterity, I rolled to one side, punching my hand upward toward the light string. I managed to yank the thing so forcefully that I sent the bulb skittering into the wall where, thankfully, it didn’t break. As brightness flooded the room I vaulted off the bed, seized the rifle and spun around, ready to begin firing as soon as my barrel was trained on the headboard. The light was still dancing on its cord as my finger began a squeezing motion against the trigger – and then I paused. Sitting on my pillow defiantly staring at me was the biggest rat I’d ever seen! It showed no trace of the fear that gripped me. It just gazed at me curiously and flicked its hairless little tail against the mattress. For reasons that escaped me then, and even now, the damn thing had been walking back and forth on my pillow, circling my head and doing God knows what up there!
I let out a scream and threw the gun into the air – by the grace of God and a sturdy trigger, it didn’t go off when it hit the ground – and I tore through my room, down the hall and out the front door. Once outside, I stood there in my underwear, sucking in the dense night air and doubling over as I fought to collect my breath and my thoughts.
Admittedly, a rat – even a huge one – wasn’t quite the equal of a sapper wielding a razor-sharp knife, but the rat carried its own set of dangers. Rabies, for instance. Everything in Vietnam that could crawl, run or scuttle seemed to be infected with rabies. Did the damn thing bite me? How would I have known? It had gotten pretty aggressive with my head; and as fired up as I was, it probably could have nibbled my ears off and I would have stayed fixated on the idea of a skulking Charlie, sitting on his haunches, waiting to bleed me like the prize pig at a county fair.
After recovering my breath and my senses, I made a beeline for the bathroom and tried to perform a scalp inspection with minimal light and a battered mirror. Nothing revealed itself immediately, but I wasn’t convinced. Still certain that the unwelcome guest had scratched or bitten me somewhere, I realized that if I wanted to avoid a painful series of rabies shots, I needed to hold on to the rat for tissue analysis.
Heading back to my room, I grabbed the .38 that we had stashed in the living room – one of the many guns that didn’t really exist, according to camp rules. It seemed to be a marginally more efficient way of disposing of my houseguest rath- er than blowing him to pieces with the AK-47.
When I returned to my room he was still there, resting comfortably on my pillow and looking like he owned the place. And I swear he’d gotten even bigger in the minutes I’d been gone! My hand shook slightly, still draining off excess adrenalin, as I leveled the pistol at my hairy roommate. I was just getting ready to fire when he leaped from his perch and disappeared between the bed and the wall. Dropping to my knees and peering across the floor, I could see that he had made his timely escape through a hole in the hootch wall that he or one of his buddies had chewed. There was nothing else I could do. He was gone. Completely. Nothing else to do.
I settled uneasily back into my bed and waited for a sleep that never came. Each time I started to drift off, I’d jolt back into awareness, certain that things were crawling on me. It was nuts – or maybe I was.
At daybreak I went in search of all the 2x4s I could find, and nailed them securely across the entire base of the room. But it was still two weeks before I could manage to fall asleep for any length of time. Every night, just as darkness closed in around me, I’d slam back to consciousness, rattled by the sensation of things crawling on me. Bugs, snakes, rats, dogs – you name it. Somehow they all managed to breech the fortress I’d built and haunt my nights.
Finally I went out and scrounged some mosquito netting from the army guys and built a little tent over my bed. My nightly ritual became checking under the pillows, under the blankets, under the sheets, and under the bed, until I was satisfied I was alone in there. Then I’d jump into bed and tightly tuck all the netting under my mattress – knowing full well that if the stupid rat had chewed through my wall, it could certainly chew through mosquito netting. But somehow it gave me the sense of well being that had evaded me for weeks. A psychologist would probably say that it was the act of taking control, not the presence of mosquito netting, that finally allowed me to sleep again. And he’d probably be right. Eventually I tossed the mosquito netting because it was too big a pain in the neck.
On the positive side, I never found any evidence that the rat had mauled me, and I never foamed at the mouth or acted erratically, at least no more than usual. But in the end, the rat got the last laugh: as a kid I’d been an incredibly sound sleeper; friends and family joked that nothing ever woke me up. The rat changed all that. Today, if a stick breaks in the yard next door, I’m awake and alert.
It was one of many Vietnam experiences – up to and including getting myself blown up at one point – that would shape the rest of my life. But in terms of sheer, stark terror, the night I spent with a rat tromping around on my head has yet to be equaled. Hopefully, it will stay that way.