Tunnel Rat

By Robb White


He took out the same folded sheet and smoothed it out on my coffee table as delicately as if it were the Shroud of Turin.

“My dad drew this up before he left Saigon,” Tran replied.

“And this?” I asked. I jabbed a finger at the fat X.

Tran relayed the story as if Phuoc’s ghost were right there in the room speaking through his son. Phuoc told Tran he’d been traveling in the North on some fact-finding mission. That’s when he found a way to slip out of his hotel at night and meet his handler from the North, a man who’d come down from Hanoi. This guy took him into tunnels near Cao-Doi.

“My father saw a room down there half the size of the Carlsbad Caverns,” he said.

Phuoc saw soldiers lounging, some reading, sleeping, others gambling for money, writing letters home, all wearing those signature black peasant trousers of the VC; he saw munitions, weapons, provisions, medical supplies, everything an army needed while it moved underground.

“But he saw something else,” Tran said; “my father saw bamboo mats stacked against the wall. I guess the Cong used to hide and sleep under them. When his handler went off to send a radio communication, my old man strolled over there. When no one was looking, he pretended to bump into the mats and there it was.”

“What was?”

“This.”

Tran tossed a photo onto the coffee table. It was taken in dim lighting. Bamboo matting covered something shiny. Something glittery like—

“Gold,” Tran said, watching my face. “Gold bars, to be precise. Maybe a hundred gold bars.”

“What makes you think they’re still lying underground in a secret tunnel since the war ended?”

Tran pulled out a newspaper article dated 1995. It said Japanese gold bars had been discovered by children playing in a cave somewhere in the Philippines.

“So what? This proves nothing,” I said.

“My pop confessed something else to me,” Tran said.

“He told a colonel friend of his back in Saigon about the gold. The colonel ordered a raid on the tunnels. They killed every one of the soldiers and blocked up the tunnel’s exits and entrances—all but one.”“He was playing both sides against the middle?”

“Who knows? Who cares? He and this colonel, they planned to split the loot between them.”

“Finish it, Tran. What happened to the gold.”

“The Tet Offensive started the day after the colonel’s raid. All his hand-picked men were killed, wiped out, including the colonel.”

“How do you know the colonel didn’t tell someone else?”

“A week later, my father made a secret trip up there. The fighting around Hue was just getting fierce, time was running out. The Cong were moving steadily south winning battle after battle. The Marines were getting their asses kicked from one hill to the other all around Hue. He risked his life crawling around in the dark out there, but he located the tunnel entrance.”

“Tran, it can’t be,” I said; “think about it. That was almost fifty years ago. That gold, if it even was real gold, is long gone by now.”

Tran broke out a big smile that flashed a gold-plated incisor—his “street badge,” he called it. Tran, the wannabe gangster far from the Crips and Bloods of L.A., wanted more than anything to be someone important, someone his father would no longer express bitter disappointment in.

“Not so fast, homie. My old man had access to all the troop deployments, remember? Between ARVN, the Americans, and the Cong, nobody came within ten miles of that tunnel. All the fighting moved off in another direction.”

“There’s just no way,” I said.

My father saw the gold down there, Drew,” Tran repeated.

“Yeah, you said, back in nineteen-sixty-eight.”

“Two weeks before he died, he got his visa approved to visit the old country. His name wasn’t on any records because the CIA destroyed their records to protect anybody who’d helped them. He went with a Canadian travel group from Vancouver and ditched them as soon as he arrived in Saigon. He found the tunnel, Drew! The jungle covered it over. . .

”Something clenched in my stomach because I suspected what was coming next.

“You and me, bro, we’re going to go over to that raggedy-assed country and get that gold.”

I scooped the paper off the table. The diagrams were in a neat, precise hand with delicate blue-ink notations in metric units—how deep and how long each tunnel was, the coordinates.

“You can’t read Vietnamese, either” I said.

“Ever heard of google translator?”

* * *

Fifteen hours later, we were flying forty-thousand feet above the South China Sea at five hundred miles-an-hour in an aluminum silver tube. The split was 50-50. I’d put up the money to bankroll us for half the gold. Tran’s map was his half of the deal.

My stomach was jittery the closer we got to Vietnam and the reality of what we were attempting. Tran’s only concern seemed to be the lack of cell service once we were on the ground and past Customs. We took a taxi to rest up in a hotel. I’d decided against applying for an international driver’s license; we’d keep the paperwork down and hire a driver to provide some backup, if needed, to our cover story of two Americans out camping and doing research outside the city. “We can pick up everything we need, nice and kosher, I told Tran.”

“Man, you are one paranoid dude. Let’s just buy what we need on the road.”

“I don’t think they have a Lowe’s or a Home Depot where we’re going.”

Our hotel was small, off the tourist-track’s path, but full “of Old World charm,” as they say; it had a colonial façade and was smack in the middle of downtown near the War Remnants Museum on Vo Van Tan Street. The area hummed with street noise, motorcycles, cars, and people walking everywhere in all directions like the Apocalypse had just been announced. Traffic never stopped. The constant buzz of street noise mixed with aromas of food with diesel fumes in the steamy August afternoon of the rainy season.

“Check out the babes below,” Tran said, opening a window to the street and peering out the window. The a/c was more for decorative purposes.

A pair of young women walked just below our window. Both wore the long traditional dress with the slits.

“We’re not here for that,” I reminded him.

I needed something in my stomach. Those rich, exotic aromas wafting up to our room reminded me of the starvation diet airlines provided nowadays.

“Me, too,” Tran said. “I could go for some fried grasshoppers with lemongrass and roasted dog.”

“You’re kidding me,” I said.

He wasn’t. It was on the menu. Our guide’s name was Nguyen Van Duc and he drove us to a restaurant in District 1.

“Maybe he’s a distant cousin of yours,” I said to Tran on the way.

“Forget it, man. Nguyen is like ‘Smith’ in English.”

The hotel arranged a driver for us in fifteen minutes at 16 VND an hour. They probably had them on retainer or lined up like taxis at the curb waiting for the next tourist. Taxi scams in Vietnam are common. Duc drove a battered minivan and wanted to take us to see the Cu Chi tunnels and tour the Mekong Delta. I nixed the delta tour, but I thought we would benefit from the tunnels excursion. I had a particular reason for delaying, I told Tran.

Duc, a smiling man with blue-black hair who said he had four girls at home—”bốn cô gái”—spoke decent English; he said we could “learn all about the daily life of a Viet Cong soldier.”

“Cool,” Tran exclaimed. “We can shoot one of those big guns and pretend we’re killing Cong.”

I stared at Tran.

“What?”

It was hard to believe that all those bombs and napalm dropped on this tiny country, the maimed and wounded, all the soldiers on all sides killed in the fighting since the Battle of Dien Bien Phu against the French occupiers in 1954, and it came down to packaged tours and dining on the Saigon River in a dragon boat under neon lights. Back in the hotel, I warned Tran to be careful.

“They could be watching us,” I said. “This is a Communist country, remember.”

“Stay in your lane, homes. I got this.”

You’d think a landscaper, someone used to digging in the earth, would be a natural when it came to tunnel exploring. You’d be wrong. I’m claustrophobic. I have nightmares of being caught in sewer pipes, crawling through spaces in caves that narrowed to where you had to go forward because there was not enough room to turn around. My heart thumps in my chest and I have moments of blind panic.

Tran was a chattering monkey the whole time we were en route. Duc would forget Tran wasn’t Vietnamese and lapse into dialect every now and then, but he never got back a response other than “Say what, homie?” or “English, Duc, English.” At the tunnels, we left Duc behind to smoke cigarettes and read the papers. Out of earshot, I pulled Tran back and growled, “Be careful. He could be testing you.”

“Testing me for what? Gookspeak One-Oh-One? If that’s the case, I failed, man.”

I couldn’t tell him about my fear of closed spaces. This was the equivalent of locked-in syndrome for me, a heart-palpitating fear of being squeezed to death by a boa constrictor of my own imagined terror.

The guide beckoned us. These people were so friendly and yet—and yet, it was like that nightmare where the friendly face staring at you from the window wasn’t your best friend but your worst enemy.

* * *

Cu Chi was once an American base. Thirty miles north of Saigon, the Cong popped up from these tunnels to bomb fuel depots and disappear like smoke. It took years for our troops to discover this complex network of crisscrossing tunnels. Some tunnels dead-ended, others connected villages sympathetic to the NVA. As many as a thousand enemy soldiers could exist in the tunnels at one time. It went clear to the Cambodian border.

But in some places, it wasn’t more than a couple feet wide—just wide enough to get your shoulders through and that was if you were about Tran’s size.

The sun was a feeble disc in the sky barely able to punch through some ragged pewter clouds obscuring it, but at least it had stopped raining. Our guide told us the Vietcong had their headquarters directly below an American base. He thought that was hilarious. I thought of all the killing these tunnels had seen, first with the German shepherds sent down until so many had been blown up by trip-wired booby traps, the higher-ups in the military decided a smarter animal would have go into the tunnels. They selected about 100 small, slender volunteers; they called them Tunnel Rats and even created a patch and a Latin motto for them: Non Gratum Anus Rodentum, or loosely put, “We don’t give a rat’s ass.”

With knives and small automatics, they entered the tunnels; they used their fingernails to find the tripwires. The Cong adapted to them, too. Pungi sticks, bamboo sharpened to points, were placed in pits dug beneath a tunnel. Scorpions, deadly vipers were added, often hidden in the bamboo sticks—all of this while you’re crawling on your belly in pitch darkness. With the loss of sight, your hearing and sense of touch became acute, rarefied. Only one out of five Tunnel Rats came home from the war.

Our tunnel guide was fluent in French and English. He didn’t take us into anything that narrow, but when we had to crawl through one stretch of tunnel “only twenty-five meters,” he said—I couldn’t do it. I told Tran I had to go back and I’d meet him at the van. I climbed the ladder up into daylight, my hands trembling so hard on the rungs, I nearly slipped. I made it to the top and headed back to where Duc was watching me; he was talking on his cell phone. I concentrate don his head, then his mouth. About ten yards from him, my knees gave out and I fell to the wet grass.

Tran’s face was staring down at me when I came to.

“What happened, bro?”

“I got dizzy,” I said. “I don’t think I put enough food in my stomach.”

Back in HCMC, Tran’s text-English for the capital, he demanded time to sample the nightlife. I handed Duc a hundred in twenties and told him to come back sober because we were heading out early. I’d had to use one of the clerks in the hotel to help me make Duc understand we wanted him to take us north. I gave the clerk the cover stories and she translated in rapid Vietnamese. Duc used his fingers to explain how much he wanted for his fee. I nodded my head. I asked her for a five-a.m. wake-up call.

Tran came in shit-faced at 2:18 by the digital clock on the night stand. He was chatty, slurred his words, and crashed into objects undressing for bed. I lay quietly in the dark breathing in the alcohol fumes of whatever he’d binged on until his jabbering about annoyed me.

“Rise and shine in three hours, Tran,” I said. “Better get some sleep.”

In the morning, Tran was badly hung over. I showed no pity. I dragged him downstairs by the arm into the dining room for coffee and toast.

He refused food and kept burping sour stomach gas. He wore sunglasses to shield his bloodshot eyes.

“Damn Tiger beer. Duc’s probably got a bigger hangover.”

What?”

“We went to Duc’s place. He couldn’t find me a bar open past midnight.”

“What about his family? Do you think that was wise?”

“Never mind, man. Nobody but me and Duc. Get me some Alka-Seltzer before I heave all over this table.”

“Tran, I want you to be quiet and listen to me,” I began.

I was in full lecture mode. That little signal we human beings have in the basal ganglia where the old primitive brain evolved from the stump at the top of the spinal cord was shooting me distress signals, alerting me to potential danger if I didn’t get my reckless partner under control. I couldn’t explain it and Tran wouldn’t have believed me, but ever since we checked in, I felt we were under surveillance. You know how you catch a person’s eye just as they turn their head? It had happened too often, and it wasn’t because of my pasty skin color.

Duc showed up wearing a pair of sunglasses, too.

“Great,” I said. “Two boozehounds to nursemaid.”

I told Duc we needed some supplies. I told Tran to stroll some markets in District 1 and pick up some backpacking equipment. I gave him a list and told him to be careful what he said to the owners. I told Duc what tools I needed; he told me the best chances were going to be among the markets between Boi Vien and Dhe Tan. I told Tran I’d meet him at the Danh Sinh Market in an hour and gave him one of the city maps from the hotel. I told Duc I had to have machetes and digging spades for digging “wartime artifacts.”

Tran was chatting with a couple elderly tourists in front of a bamboo crafts shop when we pulled up.

“Small world,” he said; “they were from Redondo Beach.”

“You get everything?”

“Most of it,” he replied. “Everything’s made in China just like home. This guy in this one shop on Dhe Tan Street, you’d think I’d asked him for a kidney.”

“Before we get in, have you noticed Duc on his cell phone today?”

Tran removed his shades and stared at me; his eyes were still bloodshot and looked as if he’d been rubbing them.

“Man, are you for real? Your paranoia is getting on my last nerve—”

“Keep it down, Tran. He might hear you,” I said.

The last thing we needed for the long trip north was food and extra gas canisters. We stocked up and took off while the morning was just beginning to build up the humidity. Giant, black-bellied clouds were rolling in from the sea as we left for the national highway bisecting the entire country. Tran climbed in back with the gear and wrapped himself in the sleeping bag he’d bought. The rain came down before we left the city. Water poured into the streets from downspouts, flowed off awnings in rivulets, and overflowed gutters; it seemed to explode off the tops of passing cars. People huddled in storefronts and alleys to escape the deluge. This wasn’t the downpour I was used to in San Diego or the afternoon cloudbursts that revealed sunny skies afterward. It seemed like a judgment, a retribution, nature’s wrath unleashed.

If Tran’s father’s map was accurate, we had a hike of three miles to negotiate over rough ground. That was assuming Duc’s van could get us to that point. I had a long time to think. The rhythmic slap of the wiper blades across the windshield seemed to make little headway against the buckets of water discharged from the heavens. Tran was snoring in the back.

The half-day we spent touring the Cu Chi tunnels to get me over my claustrophobia didn’t help me; in fact, it worsened my fear of enclosed spaces. When he headed for the village up North, I’d have to find a way to go down into the tunnels with Tran. He couldn’t carry that much gold in a single backpack and wriggle through those narrow holes.

I thought of those courageous Tunnel Rats, forgotten men now, but how they had to deal with fear was as magical to me as suddenly taking flight. And nobody was going to be tossing in a grenade to kill me or setting up Punji sticks to impale me. The tunnel guide back in Cui Chi said if an American G.I. were unlucky enough to pop his head into a Cong hideout, he’d be garroted before he could draw his weapon or have a sharpened spear rammed into his throat.

“The VC were very patient men,” the guide said while looking at Tran mostly. Then he looked at me. “If you fired your whole clip, the VC would know. They counted the shots.”

“How did they get the bodies out?” I asked him.

“They didn’t,” he said. “No one knows how many bodies are still in the tunnels. They found a whole tank buried in one of the tunnels.”

Tran expressed doubt you could cram “a big-assed tank” into one of those tiny tunnels. I wasn’t the smartest kid in my high-school French class, but I had no trouble with “Américain stupide.”

Duc’s van came with a Garmin. We were making good time despite the muddy roads. I saw rice paddies and water buffaloes. It seemed I was transported into another time before the Vietnam War, before computers, before television and rock-‘n-roll, and all the ghee-whiz stuff that Tran’s generation couldn’t do without. He was seriously depressed he couldn’t check his Facebook page outside Ho Chi Minh City.

Cao-Doi was off the trans-Vietnam Highway, the old Highway 1 built by the French and the site of so many firefights and battles. We were making good time despite the thunder over the mountains to the west threatening another soaker. Duc was mostly silent, playing the radio and listening to his music. Tran woke up long enough to complain about the “banshee screeching” and told him to find some EDM.

“What is that?” Duc asked over his shoulder.

“House music, homes. Vocal Deep House, here check it out, Duc. Daft Punk’s remix of The Weekend’s Starboy.”

“I understood half of that, Tran,” I said. “I don’t think Duc got any of it.”

Tran reached across the seat rest and put one of the earbuds from his iPod into Duc’s ear and let him listen.

“That’s music, not that sing-songy crap you hear back in Saigon.”

Duc swayed his head and made la-la-la noises. Tran wasn’t amused. He pulled the earbud out and yawned. “Are we there yet?”

I checked the Garmin and the open map across my lap.

“Soon,” I said.

Good because I have got to piss like a horse.”

“Look, right there! That’s the hotel my father stayed in!”

I still had that bad feeling, worse than ever. But there wasn’t another human being for miles around. Nothing but the scent of mud and jasmine in the air and the sound of my blood thudding in my ears.

* * *

“Where is it? Where is it?”

Tran was sweat-soaked, half-crazed, swinging his machete at the underbrush like a maniac, wasting energy. It did me no good to try to calm him down. I could barely restrain him as it was. We’d followed the map’s directions to the place where the tunnel entrance should have been. Six hours of searching produced nothing but exhaustion in humidity so thick it was like walking in water.

“It’s got to be here!”

“Stop killing snakes,” I said. “Work the grid search like I told you,” I said. “We’ll find it if it’s here.”

By nightfall, we were both ready to drop. We set up camp, ate food out cans that could have been dog chow for all I knew but I was starved. I made coffee over a campfire. Tran guzzled Red Bull. He couldn’t find mosquito repellent in HCMC, but he managed to find that.

A waning gibbous moon appeared above the canopy. A blue shroud of gauzy haze clung to the sides of the mountain range beyond the river. The serenity of the view clashed with the greedy intent of our expedition.

“It’s beautiful here,” I said.

“You keep the view,” Tran said. “I’m here for gold.”

“We’ll find it tomorrow,” I said, but I didn’t believe it myself. I was more certain than ever some long ago brigade of the VC had recovered it. It was probably sitting in a vault back in the State Bank of Vietnam back in Ho Chi Minh City.

It was Tran who found it with his free-for-all swinging. His machete hit a teakwood tree and the shock of the tree’s density as it clanged off the bark nearly whipped the blade in front of his face. He went down backwards, his feet tangled in the thick undergrowth. He got up cursing and when he reached for the machete, he couldn’t find it. He got down on his hands and knees and started to put the ground when one of his hands went down into the earth clear to his elbow.

“Ho-oly shit!”

“What is it?” I called out. I could barely see him through the bamboo.

“I found it,” he said quietly as I approached.

We cleared away the growth that had built up around it. There was nothing the eye could see that would distinguish this spot from a million acres of jungle, yet his father’s coordinates and directions were as perfect as a GPS satellite reckoning. How had Phuoc managed to find it after that one visit? Maybe the gold was like a magnet that spoke to something inside people and drew them despite the odds.

“Now comes the fun part,” Tran said.

“Be my guest,” I said.

“What about booby-traps? Remember what that tunnel guide said back in Cu Choi?”

“There’s no other way, Tran” I replied. “We came this far. We’ve got to see this through. If the gold is still down there, it isn’t going to come to us.”

We went back for the flashlights and ropes and the other gear we’d need.

“Who goes first?” Tran asked me. He’d stopped sweating, unlike me, and his face had an odd white ring around it like a clown’s mouth.

“Lie down,” I said. “I’ll bring you some water.”

“What for?”“You’re white as a ghost. You’re going to collapse any minute.”

His face was bleached of color and he stared at me as if he didn’t know me. I feared heat stroke and hoped for the lesser evil: heat exhaustion. The alcohol he’d sweated off had dehydrated him despite the bottled water and energy drinks he’d guzzled. But he was flushed, beginning to mumble incoherently, and his skin was hot and dry to the touch.

I used my machete to chop a shaded cover of branches and made him lie down under it. I gave him water and poured water over his face.

“Shut up and drink,” I commanded. “Don’t move.”

He started to twitch from muscle cramps. I soaked a towel in water and covered his face. He struggled, gasped out some nonsense about my “running off with the gold.”

By nightfall, he was calmer, and the twitching had stopped. I’d given him all but the last two bottles of water.

I’d taken comfort in knowing we’d both be going down into that maze; now I knew it was up to me. Tran wasn’t going anywhere. He’d have to take his chances with poisonous snakes, centipedes, and maybe even the occasional marauding tiger out here in the jungle. I’d need every hour of daylight the next day to get down there, find the gold, bag it up, and return for the second load. I had no reason to doubt the accuracy of Tran’s father’s figures. Even getting a backpack heavy with gold bars was going to be a tricky feat through one stretch of the tunnel. I’d have to do it on the two remaining bottles of water and the energy bars we’d brought with our camping supplies. The water from the river could be boiled later on—that is, if I found my way out.

At dawn, I was going in. Tran would be recovering by then—or not. Either way, it was all or nothing. I tried to find courage by summoning the ghost of Tran’s father. I thought of those brave Tunnel Rats. They could smell another human being in the tunnel, the Cu Chi tunnel guide had said. They knew if someone was down there waiting for them in the dark.

* * *

I knew to the meter every turn and twist in the tunnel leading to the cavern where Tran’s father had seen the Cong and the gold. Still, I taped my map with the dimensions to my inside right wrist. There would be no room in some passageways to turn my body enough to fetch it from a pocket if I needed it.

At first light, I prepared for the descent. I gave Tran some water and replaced the wet towel over his head. He was alert and coherent, still weal from the shock to his system. I cut lengths of rope of equal size and made knots for gripping the rope that would take me down into the tunnel system.

I moved debris from around the opening. My flashlight showed the remains of the wooden ladder descending about twenty feet into the dark; the opening was directly ahead. But the first hurdle was not to get stuck down there if the ladder was rotted. I’d roped myself around the chest to repel and tied it off to a thick coconut palm; I knotted my improvised handholds at intervals for climbing out. A second rope was an emergency but also a way for someone at the top to pull out the heavy backpacks.

Down, down into the blackness. The ladder was holding. The smell of earth was overpowering, and I shivered, hackles climbing up my neck. Think like a tunnel rat, I ordered myself. I had to leave the workaday landscaper behind psychologically if this was going to work. The fourth rung came off in my hands and I slipped backwards until the rope’s tension tautened and I hung there dangling beside the ladder like a useless puppet. I had to feel with my hands and feet until I had my feet and hands back on the rungs. I went down two more rungs before my body weight snapped the ladder apart and I fell the rest of the way down landing on my back. The air was knocked out of me. I water bottles exploded from the impact, everything inside my backpack was wet. I tested the flashlights and hoped the Chinese manufacturer that reverse-engineered them did it right. I made sure both functioned before I’d gotten my wind back. Tran on top could hear nothing. I was all alone.

Get in there, I ordered myself. I stared at that black hole, flashing the light on and off as if I were trying to semaphore the ghosts of those Tunnel Rats to come get me.

“Here we go,” I said in the blackness—and went headfirst into the tunnel pushing my backpack ahead of me. Crawling, pushing, crawling. At one point, maybe five minutes in, I lay my head in the ancient dirt and squeezed my eyes shut. My whole body shook with tremors.

Them how it happened, I don’t know but instead of retreating, I went forward—straight into the Devil’s anus. No turning back. I made it my mantra. I pushed, shoved, gasped for air, pushed, crawled. It was an out-of-body experience. I didn’t know up from down, just nothingness like floating in outer space—one hand on my flashlight, which proved useful only because made the palpable blackness bloom in a shaft of light, yet it never became anything except more blackness ahead. The contours of the tunnel were all I knew. No vipers, spiders, scorpions lay in wait.

I gained strength from moving and I held my imagination in check. I became a Tunnel Rat. My senses sharpened in the darkness. I kept crawling forward, the backpack a hindrance and a salvation. It gave me purpose, even a paltry one.

I came to the first turn to the right. This one extended for twenty meters according to Tran’s father before it widened. The extra space around me became I godsend, and I wanted to weep for joy. That unbearable feeling of being suffocated in the earth was lightening just enough. I made good progress and negotiated the next series of twists from memory. The Cong had put deadends in here that Phuoc had underscored in faint blue strikeovers. Both were boobytrapped with tripwires. The cavern had exits that Phuoc wasn’t shown. He also noted places where trip wires lay across the path. He would have known this because his NVA handler would not have risked a grenade going off behind him.

I don’t know how long the next tunnel lasted, but I had to stop and rest several times before plunging onward. The panic in m y brain wasn’t altogether gone. It tickled somewhere back in my brain like a silent scream waiting to erupt. Stopping only made it worse.

The last sequence of tunnels went in three directions. The one ahead was mine; it opened into the big cavern. Here, I almost lost it. Old Phuoc’s map was wrong or else I had misjudged my progress in meters down this last shaft.

Then my light showed me the difference. The outer edges of the beam were gauzy with dust motes. I knew I’d reached it. I crawled on desperate until my brain kicked in and I slowed and regained my senses. Some word on Phuoc’s original map was smudged, like a thumbprint, that blurred a notation. I’d left it off my redrawing of his map because it made no sense: nhẫn:“ring.”

It would have been a costly mistake because I still clutched a strap of the backpack at that moment when the bottom fell out of the tunnel and I was aware I was instinctively suspending the backpack. The Cong had a boobytrap just before the cave entrance.

Still holding the backpack, I inched to the lip of the hole and leaned over it; my light picked out the tips of the bamboo spears; they were burnished black by fire and sharpened to deadly points. I maneuvered my body backward from the pit and hauled up the backpack. I had to think. To come so far and fail. I felt as if all the blood in my body had been replaced with some thick, slimy liquid that pinned me to the earth.

In my grief and rage, I jammed the butt of the flashlight into the earth—and picked up a glimmer of something. I swept the beam over the sides and roof of the tunnel and saw them: rings. Corroded, grabbable rings. They looked like brass rings, the kind that used to be seen on carousels around the country. I could recall as a child reaching up for one at Belmont Park, but I was too short to reach it. That was Phuoc’s notation that now made sense. It was the only way to negotiate over the pit’s drop. Five feet beneath each ring was a hollowed bamboo stake jutting out for the feet.

I put the flashlight in the backpack and tied it off to my midriff. I’d need both hands to negotiate the five-meter stretch over the pit below. I hoped the tunnel guide back at Cu Chi wasn’t bragging about the Cong engineers. My life was about to depend on it because the crossing was going to have to be done in total darkness.

I walked over and pulled back the mats covering the crates. Gold. Shiny, yellow bars of gold.

At least a hundred glistening bars that hadn’t seen sunlight in half-century and were just as perfect as the day they’d been stamped in some Soviet factory, crated up, shipped, and hauled down here by Cong soldiers, mostly peasant 17-year-olds who didn’t know which end of a gun was up and who were as afraid of the jungle as the Americans were. My beam fell on some discarded papers. Old training booklets in comic-book graphics. Cartoon boards revealed the “hide, kill, and drill” lessons you’d give a raw recruit. The last picture series showed a man in one of those bamboo hats like drum cymbals scolding a young soldier for littering along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. High above, an American bomber was poised to drop its load on the offending litterbug.

Wandering around that massive cave checking out the interconnecting systems of tunnels, I discovered other rooms like a kitchen with a collapsed vent pipe that must lead to a remote stack out there in the jungle somewhere. Soldiers must have sat around here eating vegetables with their portion of rat or monkey. I saw what looked like cone-shaped air-raid shelters. I was going to have to make two trips over the pit. No matter how many times I told myself this tunnel system had survived half a century, it didn’t mean it wouldn’t come down on my head any minute.

I bagged up the gold evenly into both backpacks. The weight was greater than I’d anticipated. The second trip was going to be more willpower than stamina. I thought of Tran lying under the lean-to waiting for me to come back. I couldn’t leave him alone up there much longer. Besides, Duc would be coming in less than twelve hours.

The trip over the pit was laborious. I felt like someone climbing the north face of the Eiger. Carabiner clips moved the bag from one ring to the other, and believe me, I blessed those tunnel diggers for making the rings sturdy. That was followed by dragging the bag tied by rope to my leg—pure torture. Cramps rippled through the muscles of my thighs and shoulders. Autopilot and fear kept me moving.

By the time, I tied off the first bag to the rope dangling from the entrance and hauled myself up to the campsite, Tran was hunkered over the remains of a fire.

“I was starving,” he said when he saw me.

He gave me one of those California man-hugs he greeted his homies with.

I opened some canned vegetables and made us a hot meal.

“You really stink, man, no offense,” he said. He sipped the green tea I made him.

True, I was gross, filthy, grimed with earth that caked over every inch of exposed flesh, only my eyes visible. My clothes reeked of perspiration and clotted dirt from deep underground.

After the meal, I made a quick wash in the river, leery of wild animals prowling about, or snakes dropping on me from the vines overhead. I returned with more water for boiling.

“Where is it?” Tran asked me.

“We should leave it down there until I fetch the second load,” I replied.

“C’mon, man,” he begged. “I nearly had my brains cooked in my skull. Let me have just one peek.”

I went to the entrance and hauled up the first bag hand over hand. When I dropped the bag in front of him, gold bars spilled out and reflected in the firelight. With a blanket covering his shoulders, Tran looked like some prehistoric man pawing at the shiny metal with his fingers. That’s what we both were: two Neanderthals feeling the tiny gold bricks with our monkey paws.

“I’m going back down tonight,” I said, more to myself than Tran.

Every muscle in my body ached. The blood had gone straight to my stomach from the food I’d thrown down my greedy gullet. I’d restored most of my strength, but I was too sleepy.

“Wait a bit,” Tran said.

“No can do,” I replied. “Duc’s on the way. We’ll be cutting it too close.”

The real reason was my phobia about the tunnels. I didn’t want to give myself a second chance to cop out, say to Tran one bag is all we’re going to get.

I woke up against a matte-black sky dotted with stars. I drank as much water as I could stand, urinated, and grabbed the gear, making sure I had enough boiled river water.

I shook Tran awake. “Keep your machete handy,” I told him.

My second trip was faster, but it could have been fatal. As I made the right-hand turn toward the cave, my chest ground against something stretched across the tunnel. I heard a faint click, which sounded like a thunderclap. I froze, waiting for the blast that would eviscerate me into bits and pieces.

I’d tripped a wire. But oblivion never came. The grenade was a dud. I scraped away dirt with my fingernails; right next to my head was the decayed end of a homemade fragmentation device made from hollowed bamboo. The detonator wires were intact, but time had rotted it and made it useless. I couldn’t move for a long while because of the shaking in my limbs.

When I sensed my breathing return to normal, if that was normal, I got going again. Hours were passing, I sensed, but I had enough strength and resolve left to make my movements more concise and less wasteful the second time around.

A gray light streamed from above as I tied off the second bag next to the ladder. Climbing that rope again was made me think every ligament and tendon in my back and shoulders were about to snap and roll up like a kid’s party whistle. I made it up and lay beside the entrance hole too exhausted to move. It felt oh so good to be done! Mission accomplished. I wanted to holler it into the jungle. Instead, I drifted off into a daydream about how that money was going to make life easy back home.

Lying there, I knew we had a major hurdle left. The gold bars had to be secreted and shipped back in a way that didn’t arouse suspicion. Tran, the man with the plan, had the solution before we boarded the flight out. The idea was to secure crates of bronze Buddhas from shops in the Market District. But only ones crafted from wax molds and sold to shops in the city. I’d arranged for a legitimate buyer of antiques back in San Diego to provide the end-user certificates for the shipping manifests before our cargo would be loaded at the docks. I’d done the landscaping for him. He was willing to help me out in my new “business venture” and didn’t ask questions. I sweetened the deal by paying a big deposit and agreed to a higher-than-normal shipping cost. We’d insert the gold bars from the hotel room.

I interrupted my own pleasant daydream. First things first, I told myself. We had to clean up camp and secure the bars before Duc arrived to meet us at the abandoned hotel off the highway, a long hike back through the jungle.

Only there would be no trek back. When I got to the campfire, Tran sitting close to the fire with his back to me and Duc was roasting something at the end of a stick.

My mind careened like a ricocheted bullet: How did he locate us out here?Did he arrive early, spot the smoke from our fire

A stray comment from Tran zinged across my memory: . . . nobody but Duc and me. . .

Tran’s late-night binge. If I hadn’t been distracted by Tran’s drawing attention to himself in the dining room, I might have put it together: he had no wife and four girls at home—something’s fishy about our driver. Tran got drunk, blabbed—what else could it be to bring him out here?

Duc looked up and smiled as I approached the fire. I was concocting a story for him, hoping Tran had stowed the gold out of sight before Duc showed up.

I had just enough time to notice Tran’s hands were tied in front of him when Duc’s accomplice stepped out of the shadows and cracked me across the back of the head.

I came to, nauseated from the blow. Breathing hurt, my ribs felt bruised, possibly cracked in places. A second later, I realized why: my fall into the tunnel pit had been broken by Tran’s body.

I rolled him over and shook him. Nothing—

Moonlight enabled me to see his face. That’s when I realized the blood leaking from his forehead was dried. I thumbed his eyelids open. The backpack of gold was gone, of course. We’d been rolled into our grave by Duc and his accomplice.

Whatever I thought next was blocked out by a stream of gasoline poured over us into the hole I leaped aside, leaving Tran to be doused. Flashlight beams cut through the darkness from above. Duc’s voice: “Get the other can.”

I rubbed my face and arms with dirt to remove the gas burning skin. As the second canister of gas splattered into the bottom, I didn’t hesitate. Throwing myself headfirst into the tunnel, I was close enough to hear the Whoomp behind me as the gas exploded and flames followed me into the tunnel. Fire seared the bottoms of my boots and scorched my pantlegs. I scrambled forward, an animal clawing with fingers, trying to get deeper into the tunnel.

Everything was lit up in a glowing light. Once the flames diminished, the smell of burning flesh engulfed the pocket of air keeping me alive.

Feeling I had covered enough distance, I lay still, listening. If one of them had descended into the hole and put a burst of gunfire into it like those Tunnel Rats of the past, I’d be deader than Julius Caesar.

More talking, Vietnamese, a different voice this time.

“I got him.” Duc’s voice from above the pit entrance.

I lay in that hole quaking with fear, a sewer rat, not a tunnel rat this time. One way out, and I would have to do it in total blackness. Or I could starve to death right here. Or hypothermia would finish me sooner. They say there are three rats for every New Yorker. That speaks to the instinct to survive. Well, Drew, I said to myself, let’s see what’s waiting behind Door Number Three. I began the long journey down that narrow tunnel once again like someone caught in a nightmare.

* * *

Imperceptibly I knew I was ascending. I didn’t know If I’d come to some vent pipe opening for dispelling the smoke from the Cong’s cooking fires and wind up dying feet from the open air, clawing at the dirt above me like someone from the past buried alive in a coffin or whether it led to a real escape hatch.

When that first whiff of fresh air hit my lungs, I knew I was going to live. The light changed from the utter dark of a salt mine to a gray, dishwater light. The next few yards curved abruptly upward, and I made out dust motes floating in a shaft of sunlight penetrating the tangled mass of overgrown jungle covering the Cong’s escape exit.

I stood in sunlight blinking and shaking from the emotions pounding me. I would never feel the same about daylight again. I fell to the ground sobbing with relief. I knew I couldn’t be more than a couple miles from the hotel off the national highway.

The first man I saw was walking a pig along the highway. He stopped, stared at me, open-mouthed. He pointed, gabbled something in his language, and ran off leaving his pig nosing in the dirt, his conical hat flew off as he scooted away from an apparition he thought must be a ghost.

I stood there, blinking in the sharp light, my eyes puffed and red, my arms blackened with filth and my clothes in rags. I touched the sore spot on my head where I’d been clobbered; it came away smeared with dried blood. Ahead, I saw the roof of the Phuoc’s old hotel, its faded, lemon-yellow paint blistered in the sun. I was like one of the walking dead.

As soon as I swung the AK around and aimed it at him, his eyes bugged. I ran up to him and pressed the barrel into Duc’s face; finally, his eyes lit with recognition. His companion froze where he was, unable to comprehend the tableaux of a filthy peasant in rags jamming a Kalashnikov into his friend’s face. I motioned for Duc to get inside the van. He refused, his hands waving in protest, a sudden note of supplication entered his voice. I swung the butt of the AK right under his jaw; he folded into the gravel at my feet. I swung the side door open and turned to get his friend. I looked around for Duc’s companion—nowhere in sight.

Fumbling through Duc’s pockets for the key, I threw everything else aside, hopped up front and started the van. I rocketed out of the driveway spewing a rooster tail of stones behind. Duc groaned. I slammed on the brakes a hundred yards down the highway, swung over to the shoulder, put the van in neutral and got in back. I tied Duc’s hands and feet with rope, wrapped one of Tran’s shirts around his mouth and covered him beneath a sleeping bag. I wasn’t too gentle about any of it.

The drive back to the city gave me time to recover from what I’d just gone through. I was in a foreign country, bruised, bloodied, and half-crazed with fear. I had a Vietnamese citizen bound and gagged in the back along with two backpacks of gold that didn’t belong to me. I didn’t know what prisons in Vietnam were like but they weren’t five-star hotels.

Traffic downtown was a nightmare, even in the rain beginning to pelt the windshield, because I’d never experienced anything like it before: it was a never-ending mosh pit of pedestrians skipping across the street like goats, dodging and weaving between motorbike taxis called Honda oms and old-fashioned pedal-driven cyclos. Rush hour on Interstate 5 was Dorothy’s yellow-brick road compared to it. By the time I found my way back to District 1, I’d passed the old Saigon Opera House six times trying to locate my hotel.

I pulled into a huge construction site. A big sign proclaimed some British firm was building “The World’s Tallest Skyscraper”—just what this country needed with all the unexploded Claymores and unexploded bombs like that bamboo contraption meant to blow me into the next world. Hundreds, maybe thousands, were still lying around unexploded in the jungle beside the Ho Chi Minh Trail waiting to take off some child’s arm or leg.

I ripped Duc’s gag off and placed the tip of the barrel against his teeth. His eyes popped.

Where . . . you . . . live?

I said it ten times until his terror subsided, the ugly American shouting to be understood.

I ordered him to drive, the Kalashnikov doing the talking again, the barrel next to his ribs. He drove to a side street off a major road called Le Duan and stopped in front of a tiny block house across from an Indian restaurant. More pidgin English followed until he assured me no one else lived there.

The rain began coming down in buckets until the streets emptied of people and most traffic. The windows of the restaurant across the street were steamed with lacy curtains from the humidity making us invisible. I forced Duc into his house with the muzzle prodding him. I tied him to a radiator pipe. He chattered nonstop in Vietnamese once the gag came off. Most of it sounded like cursing. I cleaned up and then I did the only thing I could: I drove back to that construction site and buried the gold.

I’m a landscaper, I told you, and I knew what the architects were likely to do. The cement for the foundation had already been poured over the rebar and set. The landscaping would come last, long after construction, but the decorative shrubbery and trees would eventually have to be done. In the pouring rain of the monsoon season, I dug a hole with a spade and dropped a fortune in gold bars into it. Slipping around in the mud, I almost made that hole my grave as a blinding curtain of rain fell relentlessly drenching me to the core.

Back inside Duc’s home, I was greeted with a litany of cursing—no mistaking the tone. I ignored him and gathered paper and pencil and sat down at his table to write down everything I had fixed into my mind. I forgot nothing on the ride back as if it were engraved in marble. I remove my mud-spattered clothing, not for the first time in twenty-four hours, and cleaned up once more. His tiny bathroom looked as if a bomb had exploded inside it by the time I finished washing up. I put on Duc’s clothing, although I must have looked like Harrison Ford dressed in Amish clothing in Witness.

I stopped on the porch. I remembered something. I walked back into the house and up to Duc, glaring at me, spit gathered in the corners of his mouth from his frenzy, close enough to chest-bump him. Instead, I swung a haymaker into the side of his jaw. He slumped sideways like a man tied to a post executed by firing squad.

“That’s for Tran,” I said. As a final insult, I spat on him.

I drove to the hotel, dressed in my clothes, collected everything Tran and I had left in our room. I picked up my passport at the front desk, paid the bill, and asked the clerk to call me a taxi to take me to the airport.

Time stretched like taffy while I sat waiting for the next flight out of Tân Son Nâht Airport. I boarded the plane for Kuala Lumpur. I would have taken the flight to Antarctica if it had been scheduled sooner.

I didn’t feel safe until I looked out the window at thirty-thousand feet at a brilliant blue sky and glorious sunshine. I was fleeing all that chaos, violence, and horror beneath those masses of dark cloud back in Vietnam. Beside me was a middle-aged Eurasian woman in smart business attire reading the Guangming Daily. She looked like any modern businesswoman in America. In the aisle seat sat a man in casual clothing who could have been a field worker for the UN or a black-market weapons merchant. What did I look like to them? A haggard-looking American rubbing his bruised hand. Life was no longer simple. I could no more figure it out than I could read that Chinese newspaper the woman had folded on her lap.

Once the flight leveled off, she asked me if I had business or family in Kuala Lumpur. I told her “family,” as the truth would have had her summoning the pilot. She mentioned “Kuala Lumpur” meant “muddy confluence.” I told her I’d had a lot of experience with mud lately, and that much was true, more than any man should have.

* * *

The flight from Malaysia to San Francisco was seventeen hours. I slept most of the way. I didn’t have enough cash to fly to San Diego and had to take a Greyhound. I slept on the bus, too, despite the stench of soiled diapers, squalling babies, jabbering in Spanish and English all around me. Maybe I was recovering some of the wits I’d left back there in the tunnels of Vietnam, thinking about the things I’d done. Thinking about Tran and that terrible hole drilled into his forehead, the black ribbon of dried blood. Some of it I’ll never get out of my head. I don’t know what happened to Duc, and I don’t care.

I’m working as a landscaper again. I hired on with a crew of mostly illegals from Mexico. The boss is an OK guy. He didn’t ask too many questions, and I didn’t give him much explanation. He liked my work and wants to make me a foreman.

I’m getting my feet back under me. I had to sleep in a men’s shelter on Date Street for a month when I got back because I was dead broke. Now I’m building up a stake for my return to Ho Chi Minh City. I have a better map than the one I drew up in Duc’s house and I’ve added plenty of details to remind me where that hole is. I keep track of the progress of the skyscraper they’re building back there on the internet.

I don’t know if lightning can strike twice. I’ll find out when that day comes around. I keep a tight watch on my money and don’t spend more than I have to. I did splurge on one thing, however. I went to a tattoo parlor and had the tattooist do my forearm. It shows a smiling rat, the words under him in fancy lettering read: Non Gratum Anus Rodentum.

THE END


(Bio: Robb White lives in Northeastern Ohio, where he was born, raised, and where he will no doubt take the long dirt nap. Many of his stories and novels feature private investigator Thomas Haftmann or Raimo Jarvi. Thomas Haftmann, Private Eye (2017) is a collection of 15 stories. In 2019, White was nominated for a Derringer. A crime novel, The Russian Heist, won Thriller Magazine’s Best Novel of 2019 award, and a short story, “Inside Man,” was selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2019. New Pulp Press is bringing out a second collection of Haftmann stories, including the novella of the title: The Dearborn Terrorist Plot & 4 Stories.)

Robb can be found at his Website, Social Media sites, Amazon, and Our Book Store

https://tomhaftmann.wixsite.com/robbtwhite

https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B001JP338Q

facebook.com/robbtwhite 

@tomhaftmann 

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