It was January 1969, during the final weeks of Army basic training at Fort Dix. We stood shivering on that frigid, moonless night, waiting for our turn to “go over the top” to begin the Night Infiltration Course.
The purpose of the Night Infiltration Course was to give us some sense of how it feels to low crawl (i.e. keeping one’s chest and belt buckle in touch with ground at all times) towards an objective, as real bullets zing overhead and explosive charges go off nearby to simulate incoming mortar or artillery rounds. Essentially, the course consisted of an area that seemed to me to be about three quarters the size of size of a football field. However, that is a guess, as it was too dark to see the finish line from where we were.
The beginning of the course consisted of a chest-deep trench, where groups of about ten waited until instructed to go “over the top.” At that point, the group would climb out of the trench and begin the crawl to the other end of the course.
As I was waiting for my group’s turn, I watched several groups before ours begin the course. The machine gun fire from behind and above was virtually non-stop, which suggested to me that there must have been at least two guns. One gun would fire while the other was being re-loaded. We had been “assured” by the Sergeants that the guns were locked into a position that prevented them from being fired any lower than about seven feet from the ground. Even though I was quite certain that we would not be machine gunned to death in Fort Dix, I still was not at all eager to crawl on the freezing ground under live machine gun fire. I really need this shit?
I watched as the guys in the group before mine crawled out of the trench and disappeared into the darkness, while the tracers (there are about a half-dozen bullets between each tracer) produced fiery streaks of orange-red light in the night over their heads. I was trying to determine whether the bullets were really as high off the ground as promised, but I could not tell. I could also hear the explosive charges going off in the darkness ahead, which lit up the immediate area around the charge, showing brief flashes of the men on the ground in silhouette.
The Sergeant told us to get ready.
I leaned my rifle against the wall of the trench and nervously checked my helmet and web belt (on which was my bayonet and entrenching tool) to make sure everything was secure. As I had done a couple thousand times over the prior six weeks, I wondered what the hell am I doing here?
It also wasn’t the first time I considered how incomprehensible it seemed that strategic decisions that had been made years before, at the highest level of government – indeed, in the Oval Office itself – could set off a chain reaction of events that eventually placed me in this damned trench, waiting my turn to crawl to God-knows where, while other guys fired machine guns over my head. What the hell am I doing here?
“OVER THE TOP,” the Sergeant hollered.
I dutifully climbed out of the trench and began the long crawl. Almost immediately, my helmet slid forward, almost falling off. Each time my helmet slipped forward, it knocked my glasses (army glasses) halfway down my nose. Just keep crawling forward, I told myself, and ignore the machine gun fire overhead. (Talk about a supreme exercise in self-delusion.) I continued crawling, all the while pushing my helmet back on my head, and pushing my glasses back onto my nose.
All of a sudden, KAAH-BOOM!!!!! One of the charges exploded about ten feet from me (the charges were surrounded by chicken wire to prevent someone from actually crawling over them), and I felt something hit me in the leg. I thought, Holy shit! Could I have been hit?? Jesus, nobody gets WOUNDED in FORT DIX!! After a brief moment of panic, I realized that what had hit my leg was just some dirt that the explosive charge had thrown off. I was happy not to be hurt, but even happier not having to explain to everyone how I managed to get wounded on the Night Infiltration Course, something for which one surely does not receive the Purple Heart.
I continued to crawl, dragging my rifle along, as instructed, so as to keep the firing mechanism free of dirt. My helmet and glasses continued to slip. I lost my sense of time and place. I just crawled and crawled. I was exhausted.
I must have looked like the pathetic turtle in the movie Mondo Kane. In nature, after emerging from the sea to lay their eggs inland, turtles instinctively crawl in the direction of the ocean to return to the sea. However, as shown in Mondo Kane, atomic testing near the turtles’ habitat had altered the genes of some of the turtles. The film focused on one turtle, which, after having laid its eggs, crawled in the direction away from the ocean. It continued to crawl in the wrong direction, a slave to its genetically altered instincts, until it could no longer propel its weight forward. It futilely pushed its flippers against the sand until it ultimately died of exhaustion. Yep. That’s me. The Mondo Friggin’ Kane Turtle.
I did not know how long I had been crawling, but I finally reached the trench at the end of the course. I was sweating and freezing all at the same time. I was covered with dirt and mud from head to toe, and my rifle was absolutely filthy. Even the rifle barrel was full of dirt, which would certainly have prevented it from being fired. The Sergeant saw the mud-caked rifle, took it in his hand, and got right in my face.
“What the f*** is wrong with you? Look at this gott-damned weapon. You got about a pound of dirt in the gott-damned barrel. You try to fire this weapon, and you’ll blow your f****** head clean off!”
He was right, but I really wasn’t paying attention to his hollering. I was too busy thinking about that turtle.