Halfway to the hill, the platoon was held up by a brush and log barricade the Viet Cong had thrown across the trail. The barricade was in a gully where the trail was hemmed by two steep hills, both covered with jungle so thick we could not have gone through it with a bulldozer. Unable to go around the barricade, we would have to blast through it with grenades. Walking up to it with Lance Corporal Crowe, I saw a strand of spider’s silk glistening in the mass of brush and leaves. Only a few inches of it showed, and it was straight and taut and did not move in the wind blowing through the gully. Fear shot through me like a jet of liquefied gas.
“Crowe,” I said, “move real careful around that barricade. It’s booby-trapped. I can see part of the trip-wire.”
I did some quick, basic arithmetic: the hand grenades would go off four to five seconds after we released the spoons. There was a culvert thirty, perhaps forty, feet behind us, where the trail started to curve around one of the hills. We would have to pull the pins, place the grenades where they would have the most effect being careful not to put the slightest pressure on the tripwire, then run and take cover in the culvert. I spelled it out to Crowe and asked him if he thought we would make it.
“We’ll have five seconds max.”
“I think we can do it, sir. If we don’t, they’ll mail us home in envelopes.”
Each of us took out a fragmentation grenade. Smooth-surfaced, egg-shaped, and about the size of pears, they did not look capable of blowing a man in half.
“Crowe, we’re going to do it by the numbers. When I say pull the pin, we’ll pull the pins, keep the spoons down, and then set the grenades down. You set yours under that log on the left. I’ll put mine on the right. Don’t touch a thing. Set it down real easy. Then you take off first, so we don’t bump into each other. Got it?”
I wiped the slick film of sweat off my palm and straightened the pin so it could be pulled quickly. (No, you do not pull grenade pins with your teeth, the way it’s done in the movies. If you did, the only thing to come out would be your teeth).
“Pull the pin.”
We pulled them and, keeping the spoons depressed in the web of our hands, set the grenades down. I tried not to look at the thin, shining strand of spider’s silk. Crowe took off running, with me behind him. We dove into the culvert, covering our heads with our hands. I counted: “Thousand-one, thousand-two, thousand-three . . .” Silence. “. . . Thousand-four, thousand-five, thousand-six.
“Son of a goddamned bitch, they’re both duds. Nothing works, Crowe. Radios, grenades, nothing. Goddamit.”
“We’ll have to do it over, sir.” It was more a question than a statement.
“Yes, we will.”
Walking back up the trail, my legs felt semiparalyzed, the way they feel in nightmares of pursuit and helpless flight. There was no guarantee that the grenades would not blow up in our faces. Perhaps they had defective, slow-burning fuses. My legs kept getting heavier and heavier, and then I felt the worst fear of all: the fear of fear. For I seemed very near the point of total paralysis, and that terrified me more than anything. Hey didja hear about Lieutenant Caputo? He froze out on that patrol. Dude just froze up because of a booby trap. Sheee-hit, fuckin’ worthless officers. I talked myself into covering the last twenty feet to the barricade, as a father might talk to a toddler taking its first steps. First the right foot. Now the left. Now the right again. That’s it. Almost there, little fella.
“Pull the pin, Crowe.”
We set the grenades down. The four of them looked like a nest of olive-green eggs.
“Okay, take off!”
We pounded down the trail and made swan dives into the culvert. The grenades and booby trap went off with a shattering boom. Debris sifted down on us. Crowe smiled victoriously.