God only knows how hot it was. Wed been walking all morning , and our two canteens of water just werent doing the job. Wed been thirsty before, on Deckhouse I, but we obviously hadnt learned our lesson. Wed had plenty of heat casualties then, and we werent lookin all that energetic now.
We were on the coast. Just south of the DMZ. These were beautiful beaches with a shallow stand of trees on the edge, then a sandy plain that went inland for miles. It doesnt take long to start draggin when youre walking in sand.. My water discipline had conked out a few hours ago. I only had a slosh left in one canteen, and I only used it to wet down my lips when they started to crack. I was way past uncomfortable. Now I was worried, but I wasnt the only one. The whole bunch of us were about to grind to a halt one way or another. Somebody eventually took the hint. We stopped.
We set up a perimeter near the beach. Not a bad ass, dig in perimeter, but a slow moving herd that managed to form a crude circle. We tried to find some shade, but of course, this was the only part of the coast within a hundred miles that didnt have a nice line of trees. Instead we had these scrawny little trees every thirty feet or so. With almost no foliage. Shade was hard to find. We dropped our packs in the sand and waited for water. We had a history of waiting for water, and we were sure it wouldnt get here as quick as wed like it to. Ive never understood why, but it was always difficult getting resupplied.
We were a sorry lookin bunch. Wherever there was the slightest patch of shade youd see two or three guys trying to crowd into itsblessed relief. We were all suffering from some symtom of heat exhaustion. It was just a matter of time before somebody went down with heat stroke. All we could do was wait. There was no breeze. There was no movement. All I could hear was the murmurings of the occasional conversations.
Luzietti, Doc Wise, and I were standing in the shade of the most worthless tree imaginable when Doc noticed that Papa Garcia had lost his mind.
We called him Papa because he was the oldest rifleman in the Company. He was thirty five. Hed done a three year hitch in the Corps in the fifties. When Vietnam started to heat up he reenlisted. He was from New Mexico. He didnt talk much, but when he did he always said something worth saying. Hed refused to be a fire team leader, yet he was the most squared away guy in the Platoon, not to mention the strongest. When you think how tight lipped he was its surprising how much he was liked. He earned respect by example. A very rare guy.
Yet here he was, on his hands and knees, digging in the sand like a dog. It only took a minute or two before everybody in the outfit started staring. His was the only movement. All by himself, barely in the shade, digging a little hole in the sand with his hands. We all just looked. Nobody asked him what he was up to, much less tried to stop him. It was simply too damn hot. We were observers. Confused observers.
It did my heart good to see that other men were confused too. I usually felt that I was usually the only confused guy in the outfit. Now I obviously had company.
The hole wasnt all that big around, maybe a foot or so, but he was determined to make it deeper. He reached to his forearm. Then his elbow. Then deeper until he almost bottomed out at his armpit. All this with a look of determination. He then reached in his helmet, and pulled out his utility cover. It had been tucked in the top of his helmet. He stuck the utility cover in the hole and crammed it to the bottom. We were mesmerized.
He straighted up, reached around, got one of his canteens out, and set it in the sand next to the hole. He stuck his hand down to the bottom of the hole and pulled out his utility cover. It was wet! Hed scooped up a coverful of sand from the bottom of the hole, and was squeezing the water out of the wet sand into his canteen. As the first drops fell into his canteen a half dozen guys trotted up to him, and sorta looked the situation over. Only a few seconds went by before they went back to their positions, and started digging like hell.
The one dominant memory I have of this event is of dozens of guys on their knees, digging in the sand. We all struck water. Not three feet down. Considering the ocean was only a hundred or so yards away youd think it would be salty. It wasnt. It was warm and it was sandy, but it was wet. I dont think anybody got a full canteen from this technique, but it was a terrific boost for our morale if nothing else. If Papa Garcia was respected before, he was revered now.
Last summer I heard a knock at my door, and when I opened it I got the most delightful shock of my life. It was Papa Garcia! His first words were,
"I dont know if you remember me, but....
Ive never been happier to see anybody in my life. He looked terrific. Hed just come to town and didnt want to pass through without looking me up. After I introduced him to my whole family we sat on my front steps and visited. As you might guess we didnt say all that much. At least he didnt. It was hard to shut me up. It was just so wonderful having him sit there with me. He refused dinner. He refused to stay. Against my wishes he left after only an hour or so. He was just passing through.
When I hugged him goodbye I told him how disappointed I was that he couldnt stay longer, and Id probably wake up tomorrow and wonder if hed ever been here at all.
As soon as he left I sat down in front of my trusty word processor and wrote to all the India guys that had E mail. I wrote of the visit, but while I was composing the letter I wondered to myself if any of the other guys would remember him with the same respect as I did. All doubts disappeared the next morning when I got my reply from Doc Wise. It was simple and to the point.
"When Papa dug that hole in the sand, and came up with water, I would have elected him Pope."
Ya see, after all these years, sometimes you wonder if any of the stuff ever really happened. Its great to know that youre not the only one who knows it did.