Tunnel Rat

I’m sharing the story because I was forced to sit through it during New Year’s Eve dinner and I’m so freaked out and god damn itchy that I need to get it out of my system. I’m sure some of you are going to breeze on by this little tantrum here and go right to the meat of the story because you’re thinking, “hey, I’ve got a strong stomach.” Well, go for it.

Boring stuff out of the way: he was drafted, and since he was short and skinny, he was a perfect tunnel rat. Those were the guys who wriggled their way through the ridiculously narrow tunnels the Viet Cong used to transport personnel and weapons, set boobytraps, and all that. And when I say narrow, I mean narrow. Here’s a pic.

So, gramps was wriggling around in a tunnel one day and a few bad things happened. First, the two other people with him got killed by a solitary VC while they were standing around the hole. Being a few feet underground and about twenty feet through meant grandpa couldn’t see who attacked them or know if anyone survived. He later learned he was the only one left alive, but he assumed the VC attacker would soon start throwing grenades into the tunnel and he’d be done for. After a few minutes with no sign of any incoming attack, grandpa breathed a sigh of relief and starting moving forward again. A little while later, though, it starting pouring rain. The tunnel began to fill with water.

Now, in an unfinished, unsupported tunnel like he was in, a rainstorm usually meant death for a tunnel rat. He’d heard horror stories from the squadmates who’d lost others underground, never to be seen again. He figured he’d be another. But he wasn’t going to go out without a fight.

He crawled forward. With him, he carried a small pistol and a Fulton flashlight. Originally, he’d been sent down to ambush some VC soldiers who were thought to be hidden in one of the tunnel’s larger chambers. He’d crawl through, surprise them, blow their brains out, and wiggle his way back out. At least, that’s how his first three tunnel trips had gone. This one, his fourth, wasn’t going so well.

The tunnel narrowed as he crawled. Ahead of him, he heard rushing water. He thought it might mean the main chamber was nearby. He was wrong. The sound was the muddy ground above him sloshing downward, sealing the tunnel ahead. This is where he started to panic. He knew he wasn’t particularly deep in the ground, maybe two and a half feet, but if he didn’t start clawing upward through the ground really, really fast, he’d be a dead man. So he clawed. His fingernails tore off and his hands got cut up really bad, but he was able to get part of his arm and face out of the mud.

He was unable to move any farther. His lower back was pushed hard into the dirt and the angle had him bent into an elongated “U” shape. His legs were trapped. Above him, a square foot of light shone through where he’d escape if he weren’t stuck. He knew if it started to storm again, he’d drown.

But the rain didn’t come. Insects did. Ants were first. Luckily, they weren’t the big red ones everyone over there was terrified of. The ones with the bite that felt like you got shot. These were tiny black ones, but there were lots of them. He assumed when the tunnel flooded, they were driven from their homes. Now they crawled over his scalp, face, and neck. They didn’t bite, but they tickled and itched. Those which found their way onto his lips were licked off and swallowed; he figured he’d be going a while without food.

After a while, the ants lost interest. Flies became a problem, though. To see why, you need to know the position in which he was stuck. The twisted, awkward angle of his body left one arm stretched out in front of him, but his shoulder and upper back were immobile. So, he had a bit of movement in his upper arm, wrist, and hand, but anything below his elbow might as well have been paralyzed. Why is this relevant? Because his armpit was exposed. Not by much; maybe an inch of clearance, but that was more than enough for the flies. And they were very, very attracted to the warm, moist pit.

Over the course of an hour, 20 to 30 fat, brownish-black flies dove into his right armpit. They stayed for a little while, usually no more than six or seven at a time, before they flew away. Of course, while inside, they bit. The pain was sharp and awful, he said. It reminded him of that deep, pinching itch of the horse flies on the beach near where he grew up. And he couldn’t stop them from doing anything. He just ground his teeth.

As the sun went down, the flies started to lose interest and flew away. He knew a few stayed nestled inside because he felt them moving against the thick hair of his armpit, but the majority had gone. Now just mosquitos remained to torment him with their endless bites and bottomless gullets. Somehow, he slept.

From the moment the sun came up, new insects visited him. Of all the massive, tropical bugs he’d seen in Vietnam, he was grateful to have so far avoided the giant centipedes he’d heard about. Massive, angry things as long as a man’s forearm and as thick as a bottle of beer. One of his more sadistic squadmates hid one in the bunk of another poor bastard. It bit his feet and toes ten times before he could even jerk himself out of the bed. Grandpa hated even the tiny ones that he sometimes found in his basement back home, so the thought of those big ones made his blood run cold. This is what they look like. God help you.

Five minutes after he opened his eyes to the morning light, one of them crawled onto his hand and wrapped itself around his wrist. He was too horrified to move. The little movement he had in his hand and wrist might have been enough to fling it away, but he didn’t want to take a chance. So, he waited. Apparently the thing liked grandpa, because it remained on him for well over an hour before grandpa couldn’t take the stress anymore. He tried to grab the bug in his fist. The moment he started moving, the thing began to bite. Grandpa was able to get a good grip on it and squeezed as hard as he could.

The centipede broke in half in his hand and sent disgusting juices down his arm. The two pieces of its body dropped into the hole. The front part still had some life in it, and as it died, it bit grandpa on the nose and lips until he was forced to take its head in his teeth and kill it. He described the taste to us, but I’m just not going to write it out. Yeah, it was that awful.

The rest of that day was spent suffering as flies swarmed around the carcass of the centipede. They couldn’t get enough of it. For long hours he watched them eat and shit and fuck all over the monstrous bug. The juice on his arm, too, which had dribbled all the way down into his armpit, was also like the nectar of the Gods for the flies. More and more of them flew in and out of his armpit. He could tell more were staying within its moist confines, too; the pinching and itching and tickling sensations were occasionally more torturous than the nastily-swollen centipede bites.

Ants, too, noticed of the centipede corpse. This time, the little black ones weren’t the only variant. The red monsters with the hideous jaws had arrived. Grandpa lucked out, though. They were more interested in killing the smaller ants than bothering him. He did say one of them bit the corner of his left eye, but the pain was much less than what the “pussies at camp were always bitching about.” It was here my cousin told him that he missed his calling as a Gender Studies professor, to which grandpa simply replied by slapping him on the side of the head and saying, “I don’t appreciate jokes about that field of study.” What a complex man.

Anyway, back in hell, it had started to rain. This was a mixed blessing for grandpa. The majority of bugs scurried away to find higher ground, but he was fairly certain the hole was going to fill with water and he’d drown. Well, it didn’t and he didn’t. He even got a chance to drink some rainwater; he’d been without any real food or water for well over 24 hours at that point, so he was grateful to swallow the few tablespoons-worth he managed to get.

There was a scary moment when the dirt below his hips shifted downward and he thought he was going to fall and get buried. Again, he lucked out. The shift was minor. He’d been pinned in that strange, elongated “U” shape for a while and having a tiny bit of the pressure relieved around his groin was definitely a plus. He was able to wiggle his hips and butt a little and figured there was maybe an inch or two of clearance in that area, but nothing that allowed him to get any hope of crawling out.

He drifted to sleep at dusk and was woken up before dawn by severe pain in his armpit. He’d known all along that flies were busy damaging his skin and probably eating it. He was resigned to that fact. As long as it wasn’t another centipede, he wasn’t going to complain. But this pain was new and it was exquisite. The bites came much more frequently and he felt a lot of them moving around. That pain, despite its severity, was dwarfed by what came next. Let me just make this known: I don’t want to tell this part of the story. Just thinking about it makes me cringe. But god damn it, it’s essential to his experience. And I’m sorry in advance for you having to read it. I’ll try to make it quick.

The shifting downward of the dirt was the result of an ant colony collapsing. A big one. All the ants came up out of the wreckage and had been hanging out on the surface of the dirt right below grandpa’s hips. But as he started to settle in to the new position overnight, the ants became agitated and swarmed him. And by him, I mean his crotch. Maybe the only thing that equalled the level of horror at the table as he talked about ants crawling into his penis and rectum was how hard my grandmother laughed as he told it. “You’ve gotta get really close to see the scars!,” she exclaimed, as tears of laughter ran down her cheeks. My brother Derek’s new girlfriend turned green and left the table with Derek hurrying after her. Grandma and grandpa shared a kiss and he continued with the story.

With ants up his dick and asshole and flies building a housing project in his armpit, grandpa suffered through the next two days in a haze of pain and fear. The lack of food and water had taken a toll on him. This, he told us, was somewhat helpful. The pain grew less acute as his consciousness waxed and waned. A tarantula wandered into the hole and grandpa was able to bite its abdomen in half and suck out what was inside. This, of course, attracted more flies but there was nothing he could do about it. If he didn’t get some food and water in him, he’d die. His survival instinct was still intact despite the all the trauma.

A couple more days went by and he blurrily realized he’d been stuck for about a week. The rainfalls and insect pulp had kept him hydrated just enough to stay alive. His armpit was numb all the way down to the last rib on his right side. Flies were ignoring everything else and just going straight in and out of the pit. The adventurous ants had lost interest after a while, but every so often he felt a nasty pinch on one incredibly sensitive area or another. More time passed.

Late one afternoon, he heard gunfire. He’d heard quite a bit while he was stuck, but it was always off in the distance and too far for him to get any hope that he’d be rescued. This time, though, it was very close. He was overwhelmed with a sense of hope which was tainted by the concern that he’d be found by the wrong side. But, to his astonishment, it wasn’t the VC who he heard shouting after all the gunfire. Grandpa starting waving his arm with the tiny bit of movement he could muster. He heard someone yell, “Hey there’s an arm over here!” Grandpa yelled back incoherently and was soon greeted by the sight of a US soldier peering down at him.

It took him and his squadmates ten minutes to dig grandpa out of the hole. He remembers all of them saying some variant of “holy fucking shit” after they’d freed him. Someone radioed their position and after some unknown amount of time, a helicopter landed in a nearby clearing. Grandpa was loaded onto a stretcher and they lifted off. A medic who was along for the ride cut off grandpa’s shirt and promptly threw up. When the rest of the soldiers in the chopper looked at what the medic had seen, a few of them also rained puke down from the side of the aircraft.

A few days after being rescued, grandpa woke up in a hospital. Not one on the base, either – one in the US. He had no idea how he got there; once he was rescued, he passed out and slept for almost 36 straight hours. Some people thought he was in a coma until some poor medic tried to wake him up and grandpa said “fuck off” and knocked the guy out with a single shot to the chin.

Now awake, the doctors told grandpa the extent of his injuries. Aside from the severe dehydration, he was absolutely riddled with infected bites. The ones on his more sensitive areas weren’t much cause for alarm, despite their unpleasantness. It was the bigger bites that were much more of a concern. The one from the red ant was the worst and for a while the doctors worried he’d lose the eye. His lips and nose had terrible swelling from the infected centipede bites. Even though all those bites were awful, he could’ve recovered in a few weeks and would have been back in the tunnels soon after. But his armpit was why he was sent home.

Botflies are a type of insect which lay their eggs inside flesh. Here’s a picture of them in some poor bastard, and again, I’m sorry to do this to you. Until grandpa’s experience, no one knew they even had them in Vietnam. But apparently they do; the underside of his right arm all the way down to nearly his hip was completely reshaped into horrible cavities for their larvae. The doctors wouldn’t operate, saying the only way to excise them was to let them gestate, and at a certain point, suffocate them with adhesive tape so they’d crawl to the surface. It took another few weeks, but that’s what happened. Grandpa regaled us with the story of how he personally gave birth to 313 botfly larvae. Then he lifted up his shirt to show us the pockmarked skin.

No one said much after that. He was done with the story and after shoveling a slice of fruit cake into his mouth, he and grandma left. They laughed all the way to the door. I don’t really know what else to say. So yeah. That’s grandpa. Happy New Year.

 

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