The thing about guarding a dangerous perimeter in the middle of an undeclared war especially at night is you’re always frighteningly alone. You can’t see what might kill you out there in the darkness, but you know it can.
The silent Humvee had dropped me off alongside the stark, lonely metal fence in the bright moonlight as a light breeze cooled my nervous, sweaty face.
With two large steps I climbed over the sand dune and was down onto the deserted beach, and could see and hear the breaking surf in front of me all the way to the horizon, the only sound in that still, hot night, except for my loud breathing as I glanced anxiously from side to side for shadows and movement of men, any movement.
Two weeks earlier, a Marine with a guard dog walking along this same beach had stepped on a land mine and the explosion had killed them both in a single deafening blast.
Later the beach had been cleared of anti-personnel mines but they would come back, we all knew that, with their Russian-made explosion devices easily hidden in these undulating sand ridges, , waiting to be tripped by your leather boot as you walked; it all happened in perhaps two seconds, and then death.
Now on the beach itself maybe ten yards from the water, I walked first cautiously toward a concrete bunker built for a machine gun but now empty, twenty or thirty paces to my left near two palm trees, and once there, slowly ventured inside.
The moonlight illuminated the inside of the stark structure of open sides supported by four concrete columns, and I saw nothing on its block floor except blown sand and what looked like an empty, discarded Budweiser beer can bent in half. I eased myself out.
I walked through the soft crunching sand down to the wet, hard compacted surface reflected like glass by the lunar light near the water, and it gave me a narrow unobstructed pathway along the whole quarter mile length of the beach of two feet or more feet provided by the outgoing tide.
And tonight for reassurance, I gently caressed the carbine as I walked along the water’s edge, tart salt air in my nostrils, glancing every so often back into that wall of darkness above the sand canopy, looking for a sign of movement, and rubbing my right hand and index trigger finger soothingly for me over its shiny mental body. No sound .
The moon was an orb in the black sky and from it the water shimmered like a sheet of glass, beveled by the movement of lazy waves, and I could see a this breathtaking beauty in the bright squares of geometric light set against dark squares of water. The light was magical and for the moment fear left me, and I was filled with an almost metaphysical serenity as my boots splashed the water’s edge.
Trudging along the sand, the moon seemed gradually to follow me, and I looked back heavenward and saw the stars, all the constellations filling the dark blanket of sky above me with their white dots. I stopped for a moment, and tried to recognize some star cluster, some old friend from Missouri , and my eyes found the Big Dipper.
Then I heard a noise, not loud, but a scratching sound, like someone digging, so I turned and moved toward the blackness opposite the water, my finger on the hair trigger and walked slowly in its direction. I could see the large sand dunes next to the barbed wire but saw no shadows anywhere. The only sound was my heavy breathing and my boots crunching the top of the sand.
Halfway up from the water, the digging continued, louder than ever, but still soft.
“Were they digging and putting in mines?” I asked myself. “But why didn’t they see me silhouetted against the water?”
I had made up my mind to shoot if the sound increased much more, just drop flat on my belly and open fire, empty the magazine before they had a chance to react.
Then the sound stopped, and all I could hear was the surf behind me, so I dropped to my knees and then my stomach and waited. Nothing.
Finally I got up and moved carefully in the direction of the sound, choosing my footsteps carefully, ready for a firefight, or hopefully surprise the squad.
I got to where I thought the sound came from, and a handful of palm trees blocked out the moonlight. I started to run toward where the sound had come from, ready to empty my entire magazine at the hip, faster I ran, faster, sand flying.
In an instant I was in the grove, and suddenly I felt something hard, brittle under my foot and a sound like metal in my ears.
“Oh God,” I thought, “no, not this way,” and threw myself in the air to my right side in the sand and tried to roll away from the sound.
“I rather die than lose my legs,” came into my mind, and I felt I’d already passed to the other side.
Then nothing, only my breathing, and the taste of sand in my mouth, and darkness.
A dud, maybe not enough time to rig it, all this entered my mind.
Finally I pulled my self to my knees, put my carbine in the sand and poked all around me, and stood up. More silence.
Afraid to use my flashlight, and create a target I saw what some thing flat in front of me, half buried in the sand.
I looked closer, and then saw movement around the spot. It was a large nest of land crabs, some almost the size of a Frisbee, skirting about panic. Their legs three inches tall supporting the circular body, all frenzied.
I laughed, then fell to my knees and started to almost silently weep in the otherwise still night.