Darkening skies, flashes of light and deafening echoes greeted us as we climbed out of our transports. Six nervous young men – no, we were just boys.
“Wait here,” Stan ordered. “I’ll check with HQ.”
Our leader smiled and sprinted toward the personnel carriers; with two previous tours, he exuded confidence. Being rookies, the six of us leaned heavily on Stan. After all, we were but babes in the woods. Detailed as a mechanized crew, we felt special – but still, we worried. Aimlessly milling about, we waited, and we waited – it seemed that we were always waiting. Overhead the clouds churned into a tempest, and then the steady rain stopped. Stan rushed back, stopping once to let four buses past.
“Buses, not a good omen,” I muttered to Gary.
“I’m glad we aren’t on a bus,” my buddy observed. Everyone knew that the plum assignment was on a mechanized crew. The buses carried what Stan called dust eaters- the unfortunate ones fated to walk.
“Don’t speak too soon,” Stan laughed as he reached the group. “HQ says the ground is too wet for the personnel carriers, so we go in on foot. Huddle up.”
Moaning as one, we gathered around to get our orders. Since we were rookies, HQ posted two veteran units on either side.
“Keep an eye those guys,” Stan advised. “They can help if we get into trouble.” We nodded, silently following Stan as he placed us in line.
“Head out,” he ordered softly.
It took but a step or two to discover that the ground was not soft; in fact, it was firm. Well, firm about six inches down. The top was a mixture of water, clay, and muck. The thick mud sucked at our boots, every step was a struggle, yet we moved forward. At first, resistance was light, and then we hit the thick of it. Soon I was in hand-to-hand combat with opponents that towered well above me. On either side, men gasped, cursed, and bitched. My raw hands ached; my mud-caked boots weighed a ton. Thick vegetation engulfed us, and I lost track of Gary. I couldn’t go back, so I slogged forward. Suddenly I came to a flooded area, a clearing devoid of plants. To my right I saw Gary crouching; he looked at me and shook his head.
“It doesn’t look good,” I whispered. “What do we do?” Gary shrugged pointing behind me.
On my left, Tommy, our youngest member, emerged and stepped directly into the clearing, where a fusillade of missiles greeted his carelessness.
“Ambush,” I yelled. “Run for cover.” Gary and I sprinted through the paddy, projectiles landing all around. Tommy hit the ground; a bad move as they soon got his range. From the safety of cover, we watched hell rain down on him. Occasionally a missile would release black dust as it hit.
“What’s that?” Gary asked.
“I don’t know, maybe a biological weapon?”
We could do nothing to help Tommy, so we plunged forward, fighting our way across the field. When we emerged, tired and bruised, Stan motioned us to the safety of a tree line. Moments later Tommy stumbled out, mud-bespattered, torn and tattered – large black spots covered his shirt. He seemed unhurt, but he was livid. Behind him walked several of the veterans.
“Welcome to detasseling!” they laughed.
It was a common detasseling trick. You collected tassels as you pulled them, and when an opportunity presented itself, you rained havoc on a new crew. If you were lucky, some of the tassels had corn smut, a white fungus filled with black spores. Tommy’s mom couldn’t get the stain out of his shirt, and almost wouldn’t let him come back, but he did. As did we all, and eventually, we used those personnel carriers.
None of us would forget our introduction to detasseling, and the Battle of Lye Creek.
— David L. Dahl
Hello, I’m David Dahl. When I’m not being Bugga (grandpa), I do some woodworking and write children’s books. My latest is Olivia’s Story: Protector of the Realm.
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