The last mission


Flying, falling, unfurling, tumbling towards earth.  For a moment, I know I was out, but then I was awake and there I was, freezing before the parachute unfolded.  Senses back, I watched jungle rise up as though it were coming to embrace me.  Already I felt the ribs that were broken from being catapulted from the jet.  Hanging there in the parachute harness, I could feel the nylon rubbing against the fractured ribs on my right side.  It hurt to take a deep breath.  With the jungle coming up to meet me like a welcoming wagon to the highlands of Vietnam, I took inventory.  My eyes felt swollen.  In my mouth, I could taste blood.  I ran my tongue across my upper lip.  I had bit my tongue ejecting, but none of my teeth seemed to be chipped.  From my left ankle I felt pain.  Somehow, I had sprained it in the ejection of my Phantom F-4.  Dangling next to me, tied to a line in the parachute harness was my survival kit.  In it, I knew I’d find a two-way radio, a small caliber gun, a K-Bar, a canteen of water, ready-to-eat meals, power bars, as well as Snicker’s candy bars I put in with twenty tablets of Percocet in two foil packets.  Then I looked at the skyline and saw my jet sparkle and flame as it went down in one piece to its burial site on the side of the ridge named Scimitar Ridge.  Rising two thousand feet above the jungle which was just about sea level, the Viet Cong were dug in on the northern ramparts of the ridge.  It was over the north part of the ridge, right after I released my bombs, that the missile struck vertical tail assembly causing a loud bang, that was quickly followed by a loss of control of the plane and a smell of burning plasticine electrical cables.  When the SAM hit me, I was nearly five thousand feet up, carving my way up in the sky to fly back to the deck of the USS Kitty Hawk.  But even thinking at this point was hard for the pain in the right side of my chest was gripping me like a vise and it was all I could do just to breathe.  Then I entered the canopy of the jungle, like an infant being born.  This one was breech.  I looked at my watch.  It was shortly after ten.  It was November, 1972.  I was twenty-six years old. 

Plunging into the jungle canopy, I crossed my arms and flexed my knees expecting to roll after I touched down.  When I first touched the leaves of the canopy, I could tell I was in the thralls of a large tree.  I tore my pilot’s helmet off.  Branches that had formed a spider’s web for me to fall through, suddenly jarred me as the branches of the tree snagged my parachute just like a pet dog would snatch a thrown rawhide toy.  Now that the chest pain had subsided ever so slightly in my chest, I could feel that I hurt everywhere, not just my ribs, not just my left ankle.  Using all the strength I could muster as I dangled there, I hauled in the nylon survival kit.  From it, I retrieved the K-Bar knife.  Swaying there in the tree like a human piñata, I heard no voices as I sawed the nylon straps of the parachute harness that restrained me from reaching the ground, a good twenty feet below me.  First I was through the straps on my right side.  It seemed forever, though, before I had gnawed through the one on my left because of the broken ribs.  The tree that held me was on the steep slope of the ridge just south of the bombs that I’d dropped with the other pilots.  It was the end of the rainy season and I thought that the sodden ground that would come up to kiss me would be a little more forgiving then the dry earth when it wasn’t the monsoon.  I figured I’d roll maybe ten feet when I fell.  When the fibers of the nylon strap finally released me, I hit the ground, at a slope of sixty degrees.  Upon hitting the ground, I hit it rolling.  Immediately I felt pain in my lower back, as I kept rolling and rolling like a human pinball, hitting, in no particular order, branches, rocks, trees.  Finally, after rolling approximately a hundred feet, I was caught up in the root of a mangrove, the root sticking up like a throbbing vein on a professional weight lifter. 

Immediately, I reached for my survival kit.  I radioed for help on the emergency frequency, gave them my coordinates as best as I could.  The air was redolent of burning kerosene and napalm, burning foliage and organic beings, human or otherwise.  Then I began running, chewing up the muddy earth as fast as I could to put two or three miles behind me.  Every breath I took, came with the penance of pain of the ribs that I felt grating on my right side, every step I took came with the added penance of pain in my left ankle and lower back.  As it had rained the night before, all travel upon that game trail came with some expense.  When I’d trudged a good half-hour, I heard small arms fire going off: undoubtedly, the VC had found my parachute.  I kept trudging, at times crawling over the roots of trees, straddling ferns that grew up from the trail, at times crawling. I had gone perhaps two miles from the spot where the parachute deposited me when I found a small creek, its width half the size of a road in the States and its depth no greater than the height of my ankle.  Knowing no one could track me in creek, I followed it as it flowed east, its waters eventually spilling into the South China Sea, where I’d sell my soul to be back on the Kitty Hawk.  In the survival kit, I had stashed some twenty Percocet for just such an occasion.  Now, I took two.  I knew however, that the very situation I found myself in juiced up the adrenalin that was circulating in my bloodstream and in this do-or-die situation was doing most of the work a quelling the pain. 

For hour after hour, I trudged down that creek which had grown deeper, and was now above my chest.  Time progressed slowly.  Now I had to walk near the bank of the pregnant waters of a growing river that perhaps had not drawn its surfeit of blood just yet.  All I knew was that I was following an eastern trajectory.  As I walked in the waters, I felt walled in by the jungle, its brow hanging over the waters.  In places, I could see where feral creatures came down to water.  I just wondered if Charlie did too.

After another half-hour of plodding as quietly as I could in the waters of the stream, there were car-sized boulders on my right side.  I could hear voices on the other side.  I retreated to the brow of a rock that overhung the stream.  I listened, and I supposed there were at least four of them.  I looked around the rock closest to where I heard the voices.  They were crouched around a small campfire.  On a spit, it looked like they were roasting a wild pig.  Then one stood up, his back to me.  As he stood up, I eased back into the notch overhung by the rock.  Talking in that ping pong language that I never could understand when I was around the Vietnamese, he walked to the river where he was all but effaced against the overhanging wall of rock.  I could tell he was getting closer to me, because the volume of his voice seemed to rise the closer he got.  By now, he was shouting at his compatriots a good twenty feet away.  There was the cackle of laughter.  He got up to the crest of the rock that overhung my position.  He threw a cigarette butt into the roiling waters of the creek.  Then I saw a thin stream pouring out of the air, some of it splashing in my face.  He was urinating from his promontory over the water.  Then he went back and joined his compatriots.  I looked at my watch: it was about three-fifteen. 

I slipped back upstream.  But then, I felt something sting my posterior chest.  Only after I had felt the bullet, did I hear the patter of an AK-47.  A second shot hit me as I felt myself slide under the water. 


By Joseph Dylan


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