Thoughts on the Perimeter

13 Jan

On the PERIMETER …. Meditations at Nightfall.

When I was a kid the movies showed immortal heroes – the little group of dusty, sunburned, wise-cracking guys on outpost in the desert, far from home and anywhere. Ghosts in white sheets and turbans floated around them in the night air. There were Beau Geste, the Bengal Lancers, King of the Khyber Rifles, sentinels in the rocks of the Khyber Pass or the Plains of Jahr. There were in later years — the lonely pickets of the Blue and Grey in the Wilderness, and the listening posts on the Marne, the desperate soldiers of the Foreign Legion waiting for their inglorious end at Dien Ben Phu — the trip wire people in ‘Nam and me and Joe and Willie counting time on the perimeter in WWII. Great movie stuff. Hard reality is something else, isn’t it? Gunga Din knew. So did Clive of India, Lawrence of Arabia, those poor benighted souls. And Humphrey Bogart, too.

Of all that I recall, nights on the fringe were the most miserable part of the day. Especially the second shift on watch. It took determination or painful exhaustion to curl up, tum off your brains, hug your rifle and sleep before your tum on watch. And you knew the guy before you had played with the watch setting. He wouldn’t. He didn’t but your tum came too soon, often with a knee jerk. A dog barked down in the ravine. A bird called, a bird but maybe not. It seemed strangely different.

How many guys muttered this prayer: “Lord, if you’ll just give me this night and the sun in the morning, I’ll give you the rest of my days.” It takes a lot of anxiety to silently voice a promise like that. “This night only. Not last night or tomorrow night, but this one miserable unending night.” Then with the sunlight, the promise faded, til next time.

Yes, everybody from top to bottom was someplace on the perimeter, or maybe a little bit inside, or maybe in the safe middle of it. You might have wondered in the black silence if there was anybody else there. There was. But there was also a place that was the worst place to be for sound reasons — a place that under no circumstances would you have chosen, given a choice, which you didn’t have. Surely, tonight’s plot would not be one of those “best laid plans of mice and sergeants.” Me. “What am I, special?” Him. “You can see better from out there.” Him. “You won’t get any trouble tonight.” Him. “There won’t be any surprises.” That was the night the Japanese sent hogs up the trail, to get us shooting at shadows; giving away our positions. We were smarter than that. Not always.

There was some satisfaction granted if you spent two or three nights in one hole. You had time to stretch the thing out, and dig a little deeper, maybe line it with palm fronds. A bamboo floor would help keep your feet dry. It didn’t take much effort to tum your wormy mud-hole into something like your little bedroom at home. Sorry. I jest.

Why me and why here? You would have asked that if you dared, or if you weren’t afraid you might be stuck somewhere worse or with somebody you’d rather not be with if the enemy picked your neighborhood to investigate. Russell never asked me what better location I would prefer. He never asked anybody anything.

I can’t believe our platoon sergeant or our officers knew any more about setting up a perimeter than we lower ranks did. Not enough really deep thought about my personal welfare, comfort and emotional security. “Relax, you’ll be fine.” What? “I’ll relax at sun-up.” But that wasn’t smart either. I once got up with the sun, looked down the road and saw a sword about ten yards away. I never learned how it got there but somebody brought it and it was pointing at me. We did not usually sing “Oh, what a beautiful morning.” Sometimes we made coffee in our helmet. Mixed with chocolate, it was a nice waker-upper.

I’ve given a lot of thought to perimeters over the business years. A precise circumference being one thing, nice and neat and predictable. A perimeter on the edge of a rock pile or a swamp is by nature and geography not a perfect thing. It is like the Corporate Confabulations Department. That was my terrain. I defended it with my life; no snipers or crawlers allowed. My furniture was arranged for defense. Visitors had to sit facing the midday sun. Also, their chairs were an inch lower than mine. My receptionist would call me for no reason, if I secretly tapped the “0” key twice. That would drive the time-wasters out.

The business perimeter links were weak and strong; the people, likewise. Feelings were different, good and bad and we all had anxieties, from bowel troubles, to skin rash, to the last letter from the fickle woman we loved. That was in combat, not in my plush carpeted 38th floor office in Manhattan overlooking the East River. What were our anxieties on the perimeter, the ones that intruded on sound sleep? The ones that came at precisely the wrong steamy moment, when she was about to whisper “Why in hell not?” Living through the night was a good one. Keeping yourself control was another. Too many of our people could not handle the night sweats, and went berserk, shooting at the moon and stars and each other with terrible results.

Not messing your last set of underwear was important. You could not crawl out of the hole without getting shot at. Better to stand right up and yell …”’Hey, Larry, it’s me, Moe. Don’t shoot.” Knowing that if you didn’t keep your part of the chain intact, the whole thing might break down. We sometimes had Filipinos fill in the relatively safe parts of the perimeter. Often, they slept, cooked a moose, or simply went home. “I have not been with my wife for many days.” In our Civil War sentries who slept on watch were usually shot. In WWI, the outpost sentries from both sides talked to each other. My father’s opposite on outpost came from my grandfather’s home town in Prussia. They promised to get together after the war. Never did. My father walked into a couple of bullets and lived.

In design school, by the grace of the G.L Bill, I learned about viewpoints and perspectives. For example: On perimeter, the view downward from the top of a hill was very different from looking up the hill. High ground is better than low ground. Simple, except that the other guy has a better viewpoint than you. He’s been sitting in the shade as you approached blindly, gauging the distance, checking his sights, hating the ass-kissing sergeant who put him there.

Every great military leader, from Alexander to Patton to Sgt. Bums knew the law: “See things the way the other guy sees them and remember that if you see him, he might easily see you.” That’s the rule of foxholes and perimeters. That takes something more than on-the-job training when you have a platoon isolated below a ridgeline with hostiles above and below. Middle ground is seldom promising. That’s true in life. I’ve always considered myself a great compromiser, like Ron Reagan, Jimmy Carter or my Irish grandmother. She would say “Half a loaf is better than none.” We never had half a loaf in the thirties.

Sgt. Russell would say, “you set up there, and you two dig in there and you go down that path and dig in. You two cover that road.” He’d say it all in one breath like he had a plan. And that was the last we’d see of him until sunup. He had a lot of faith or his instincts were very sharp. Or he knew we would do it our own way, anyway. Or he just didn’t have any options, which more often than not was the case. When I asked him why me, out here in the middle of nowhere, virtually alone, he would say, “Because you’ve got sharp ears — and besides, you are more scared of the dark than anybody else.” Some people should never have been on the perimeter. They were too fidgety. I never moved an eyeball.

About hearing? Well, that’s what you do on the perimeter. In complete silence, with nobody breathing loud, nobody shifting around, nobody moving their bowels, nobody doing anything, and everyone, them and us, listening, knowing that “they are out there” and listening too. Remember how the night birds laughed?

On nights like that you can hear everything that’s not there. Your breathing is raspy and your heart is beating too loudly; your crotch is sweaty and your feet itch and the ants are feeding on you, but moving would make a sound. We learned early in the game that at night, seeing is worthless. There’s no light to see by, except during thunder-storms, when the lightning conjures up crawling shapes or a whole army moving across your front. Was that real? Are those bushes moving? Are there trees that weren’t there ten minutes ago? “I’d like to put a shot out there. That’d shake things up.” The captain would throw me to the sharks.

There were better nights on the perimeter where you knew you were in a good spot, like overlooking a deep draw, with a machine gun to your right and some old dependable guys on your left. And trip wires in front of you. Sort of homespun and comfortable; horney-like with dry grass in the bottom and two grenades for comfort. You might have a few passing words with the guy in the next pit about your latest recipe for dried oatmeal and powdered milk, or about girls you left behind, or the ones who left you behind, or the best treatment for jungle rot or crotch itch, until sundown shadows moving, foreboding, a strange hot smell in the air and good sense shut you down. Good night.

The night is dry and you’ve had time to dig a little deeper. There’s still a rim of light on the edge of that far-away mountain. Time for thinking while listening. Time for waiting long hours for the sun to creep up. And knowing, too that they are waiting for that same sun and thinking the same things you are. They’ve crept a little closer. A dog barked, there’s a distant cough and a rifle shot. You can smell Japanese cigarettes in the dead air. Maybe you want to yell at them, “Go home, you damned fools. Your war is done.” They don’t know that. Most, moving east to the mountains, would never know that. They are believers. Bushido.

The Emperor, Peace be With Him … is God to Die For!

General Eichelberger came up to our position in his jeep, flags and all. I stood right next to him as he talked to the Captain. He asked if we could hang in one more night, and the Captain said we could if the Guerillas would cover our back side. We had been badly hurt approaching Santa Tomas. We didn’t believe that ‘one more night’ crap. But, next morning a flight of A-20s came roaring in at tree level and blasted everything in front of us. Then an armored column of the First Cavalry pushed straight through. With thanks, we hiked back for food and rest. We slept inside the safe area that night and got up and going at daylight. The guerillas covering our back at St. Tomas had gone home. We could have been steam rolled.

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