The hot steamy jungles of Vietnam were ringing with the sounds of wildlife. Captain James Matheson and his platoon were heading for a village where the Viet Cong were said to be hiding out. The men went as quietly as it was possible considering the foliage which had dropped from the trees from last night’s rain storm. The closer that they got to the village, the more they relied on hand signals. Before they got to the village, the captain decided to give his men a break so that they could rest and rehydrate themselves. The signalman walked over to his commanding officer and, in a quiet voice, said,
“How much longer do you think it will be before we get there?”
“It shouldn’t be more than a half hour. Call the rest of the men over, so we can go over the plan again.”
The corporal waved his hand over his head to the rest of the soldiers. One or two grunted because they had just gotten comfortable and didn’t really want to get up, but they managed. The captain had his map spread out on a rock and waited for everyone to get into a good position. When everyone was standing or kneeling around the captain, he began,
“I just wanted to go over the plan one more time since we are almost there and I want it fresh in your minds.”
Private William Jackson, the platoon’s so-called funny man, quipped,
“Captain, I may be a lowly private, but I’m not totally stupid. I can’t speak for the others, but…”
“That’s enough Private. Now, Donaldson, Emeritt, and McClaine will split up and cover the back side of the village and look for any signs of rat holes. I will take…”
Suddenly, the sounds of Kalashnikovs rang out and the platoon formed a circle around the captain and returned fire. The Viet Cong had received word of the platoon’s whereabouts and had positioned themselves an hour before the platoon arrived. McClaine and Donaldson were the first casualties of the skirmish, which ended ten minutes later when more Viet Cong came out of “spider holes”. Ten men, including Captain James Matheson, were captured and led off into the jungle. Each man had been disarmed and had their hands tied behind their backs.
After a long, hot trek through the jungle, the prisoners were brought to a camouflaged area ten miles northwest of the village that they had been sent to investigate. Each of the non-commissioned officers were led to a bamboo cage and locked in. Captain Matheson was led to a hut which looked like it had been recently built. When he entered the building, he was led to a chair, sat down, then had his hands tied to the back of the chair. There were some rays of light shining through the thatched roof and the captain saw a stone-faced man sitting behind a desk writing on a sheet of paper. The man finished writing, folded it, and set it aside on his desk. He then looked up and gave a slightly sarcastic smile to Captain Matheson.
“I am Major Le Nguc. You can either make your imprisonment here a pleasant one or an unpleasant one; the choice is yours. Now, you will tell me what your plans were concerning the village.”
Matheson looked at the major and spit on the floor. A soldier walked up to him and punched him in the side of his head. The major waved the soldier away and then repeated his question to Matheson. Matheson, in reply, stated only his name, rank, and serial number.
“Very well, Captain James Matheson, you will tell me what your orders are concerning the village and who you were to report back to.”
“I’m not telling you shit, asshole!” Major Le nodded to the soldier who stepped up to Matheson and gave him a quick punch to the nose. The captain’s head flew back so violently that he almost fell to the floor while still tied to the chair. The major then ordered the soldier to untie the captain from the chair and put him in the “sweat box.”
“We shall see if any of your men are more cooperative,” the major said to Matheson as he was marched out of the hut.
Matheson regained consciousness five minutes after being put into the sweat box. At first, he thought that he had been blinded when the soldier had punched him, but realized that this was not so, because he saw faint rays of light along the sweat box’s hatch. The heat soon became unbearable but the captain did not call out for water or demand to be let out; it would have been futile, anyway. He decided that the best way to beat these people at their game was to close his eyes and let his mind drift away to a beautiful place. The first thing that came into his mind was the smiling face of his wife who was waiting for him at the shore of Tampa Bay. It was a semi-cloudy day filled with salty air and golden sunshine. Elaine, his wife, was sitting on a blanket in a bright red bikini.
“Come on, handsome, put some lotion on my back.”
Matheson imagined himself in his Hawaiian print swimming trunks and walked over to the blanket, knelt down and took the lotion from his wife’s hand. He squeezed the bottle and started to spread the lotion on her shoulders and…
BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!
Matheson quickly opened his eyes and noticed that the rays from the sun that he had seen earlier were replaced by flickering light from a torch. The banging noise was just another way to make sure that the prisoner did not get any sleep. This continued for the next eight hours.
Matheson was startled out of his flickering dreams by the sound of a rusty lock being opened. His eyes were stabbed by the bright sunlight of the morning and his cramped body screamed its complaints. He felt two hands dragging him out of the sweat box and a plastic pail of water was dumped on his head. When his vision cleared, he saw a pair of sandals. He was dragged back to the shed where he had first been interrogated. Major Le greeted him with a stony expression on his face as he watched the prisoner once again bound to the chair.
“Would you like a cigarette, Captain?”
“I don’t smoke.”
“Very well, suit yourself. Shall we begin again? What are the Americans’ plans?”
“How would I know? They don’t tell me everything.”
“We know that you were going to investigate the village for our men. What were your orders after your investigation.”
“Nothing. Just to report back to headquarters.”
“Were your superiors going to use the village as a forward base?”
“I don’t know.” The interrogation continued for another thirty minutes, by the time that Major Le decided that it was fruitless. He was about ready to have the captain returned to the sweat box, when a soldier entered and handed a folded sheet of paper to the major. He opened it, scanned its contents, then issued orders to the soldier. When the man left, he ordered Matheson’s guard to take the captain and put him in with the other prisoners. The men who survived the skirmish gathered around the captain and asked questions but he could not tell them much of anything. An hour later, three soldiers opened the bamboo cell door and ordered the prisoners out. While two of the soldiers kept their Kalashnikovs pointed at them, the other soldier bound their hands behind their backs and tied them to a bamboo pole. It appeared that the Viet Cong were breaking camp and, perhaps fortunately, not going to leave their prisoners’ bodies behind them. It would be three years before the captain and his surviving men would see their country again.
Former Captain James Matheson sat in his easy chair watching the late night news. The war had been over for fifteen years now, but its effects were still felt in his life. Two years after he had returned from Vietnam, his wife and five-year old son had been killed by a drunk driver. Matheson had also been diagnosed with PTSD which had caused his wife to leave with their son which led to their deaths. Due to all of this, he decided that the outside world and the people in it were not worth dealing with. True, he would have his groceries, and sometimes meals, delivered to the house, but other than that, Matheson shut himself off from the outside world. He, sometimes, thought about the times that he had been locked up in the sweat box back in Nam, but the deaths of his wife and son were the final straw. It seemed to him that when he had been rescued along with his men, that the blue skies and fresh air were the greatest gifts that God could have given him. When the war was over and he went back to college using his benefits from the GI Bill, his life, despite an occasional flareup of his PTSD, was wonderful. His world shattered when, while watching a movie on TV about the war, he found himself so entrenched with the story that he went to his bedroom closet, during a commercial, and took out a handgun that he had bought and shot the television screen. Fortunately for him, his wife and son had been out shopping; when they returned, however, his wife found him whimpering behind the sofa with the gun still in his hand. She wasn’t quite sure how to deal with the situation, but knowing that her husband’s condition was fragile, she grabbed her son’s hand and quickly left the house. She had planned to go over to her sister’s house, which was five miles away, and call an ambulance for her husband, but she never made it. Matheson’s sister-in-law was the person who found him in a fetal position when she went to the house to tell him about his wife and son’s deaths. He spent a month in the psychiatric ward, and when it was determined that he was stable enough to be discharged, his older brother took him home. After returning home from the hospital, Matheson decided that, if at all possible, he would never leave his house again. He had groceries, newspapers, and any other necessities all delivered to the house. The television became his only connection to events happening in his country and around the world.
One night he was watching the news when a bulletin came on the screen. The National Weather Bureau had just issued a tornado warning for his area. When Matheson heard this, his whole body began to sweat. Matheson’s house did not have a basement. The announcer told everyone who was listening to go to their basements or find another safe area in their homes. The only place that Matheson could think of was to hide in the bath tub. He didn’t know if this was an old wives tales or not, so he decided to risk it. He grabbed a heavy jacket from his bedroom closet and hunkered down into the tub. Almost as soon as he had taken shelter, there were sounds of chaos echoing outside. He closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and tried to think happy thoughts, but did not succeed. The sounds were getting louder and all that he could think of was that skirmish in which he had been captured. The next thing that he knew was there were the sounds of buildings crumbling and the explosions of thunder. Suddenly, he heard heavy raindrops falling on his jacket and the bath tub was shaking violently. It was after one particularly violent shake that Matheson realized that the bathtub was flying in the air, so he gripped the sides of the tub as hard as he could, even though it meant that he would loose his jacket. When Matheson was able to open his eyes, he was astonished by what he saw; there was a pickup truck, several trees, and various parts of destroyed houses circling around with him in the black/gray funnel cloud. Matheson wasn’t sure if he would survive or not, but he kept an eye out in case any pieces of large debris headed towards him. After what felt like a lifetime, Matheson felt that the wind force was weakening and for the first time in a long time, he began to pray. Suddenly, the tub was plunging down to the ground and Matheson held tighter, if that had been possible. When the tub hit the ground, it rolled over and over several times before it finally came to a rest. Matheson survived the plummet but he was knocked unconscious. By the time that rescue squads found him, he had been unconscious for an hour; his rescuers were not even sure if he was alive.
When former Captain James Matheson regained consciousness, he discovered that he was in a hospital bed. One of his arms and legs were in casts and his head had been wrapped with a turban of gauze. The beep of the heart monitor was barely registering with his brain, but it sounded normal to Matheson. A doctor in a white lab coat came into the room, checked his eyes, and asked him how he was feeling. Matheson did not answer his question; he screamed, and screamed. The doctor called in a nurse and told her to bring in a sedative. The nurse was back in a minute and she handed the syringe to the doctor. Matheson tried to struggle away from the syringe, but his casts were restricting him. Finally, the doctor sedated him and told the nurse to keep an eye on the patient.
“Yes, I will, Doctor Le.”