Fifty Years in a Fox Hole

Fifty Years in a Fox Hole

by Charles Kniffen

Paperback

$19.95

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620061602
Publisher: Sunbury Press, Inc.
Publication date: 02/01/2018
Pages: 266
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Charles Kniffen is a combat wounded veteran of the Vietnam war. He obtained a GED while serving in the Marine Corps and earned a Master's Degree in Philosophy from Uconn. Previous to his college education, Charles worked as a truck driver, a milkman, and a herdsman on a New England dairy farm. He was employed as a Mental Health Worker, a Licensed Social Worker, and a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor in Albuquerque, NM. The uncontested high point in his job-hopping, entry-level career was working with autistic children to write, develop, and produce a series of puppet plays.

Charles attends a Combat Veteran's group in Machias, ME and has been an all-season solo kayaker for two decades, plying the North Atlantic from Spring Point to the Bay of Fundy. He and his wife, Rhonda Welcome are the co-owners of Turtle Dance Totems, a sea-junk assemblage art studio and they are leading a community project to recover and re-articulate the skeleton of a 55' finback whale buried in the mud flats of Mowry Beach, Lubec, Maine.

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CHAPTER 1

OH MY GOD

Oh my God. Oh my Holy, ever-loving Jesus Christ. Oh my God. Holy Mary, Mother of God, Mother of God. Please pray for us sinners now. Right now and at the time of our death ...

Jesus, I need to get that fucking door shut. I can hear the prayers lining up like a bunch of hungry truckers at the lunch bar. They want something to eat and I know what.

Oh my God. I am heartily sorry, sorry from the bottom of my heart, so sorry Holy Mary Mother of God. Pray for me and pray for my people. I love Mom and Dad and Rhonda and Ivy and Tim and Richard, Dianne, Donny, Homer ... Oh my God ...

There's no stopping them now. It's going to be a pitiful long night of prayers and all the unholy shit that drags them out from the hollows of my twisted soul. We are deep into the Big Gum Swamp of Northern Florida and it's raining. We're on vacation, my wife Rhonda and I, at least that's what we tell everyone, ourselves included. The rain comes every night, regular as a midseason monsoon, just after dark. Right now it's laying down on our ten-dollar tarp heavier than dead sardines in a seine. Pounding, splashing, running water. The cheap plastic sags under the weight, oozes, sprays, and leaks small rivers down to flood the few dry areas that we have folded into — a real goose drowning gully-whomper. The air is thick, hot, and wet with hardly a spoonful of oxygen in it. I try to draw a deep breath and it's like sucking on an empty scuba tank at fifty feet down. The humidity leeches out all the oxygen and leaves you breathless — empty, weak, and deeply worried. The rain shoves through the flimsy, big box tent seams and now the water level begins to rise in my little hole.

Oh my God. I am so sorry, please forgive me my sins. My tent is gone, my wife is gone, swallowed by sinusoidal waves of flashbacks, night-terrors, and manic prayer all against a background of betrayal, guilt, and rage. I pray to enlist the help of a higher dimension that together we might weave a safe and satisfying world. Instead I find myself sitting in a poncho-covered foxhole with Rufus. We are on a hill abutting the DMZ in Vietnam, September, nineteen sixty-six (aka Dead Marine Zone). I continue the prayers.

The rain pounds, pounds, thrumming a darkly manic midnight drum solo and will not stop. I can see the whites of Rufus's big eyes.

Oh my God. Save us all. I am so sorry ...

Rufus is afraid tonight too. I can see it, smell it. He is probably more scared than I am because Rufus is a short-timer now, and he has come to hope and believe that he just might get out of this shithole war alive. Hope is a tragic fucking thing.

Rufus is a big black man and one of my best grunts. By that I mean that he stays awake on watch, shoots when it's time to shoot, doesn't lose contact in the bush, and doesn't give me a load of shit when he's up to hump ammo back from the drop zone. I am the newly appointed squad leader of just a few more than half of a full fourteen-man squad — maybe nine counting the useless new guy and the rocket man. We are dug in on the top of a little hill somewhere within pissing distance of the DMZ — "Operation Prairie" the office pogs call it — at about two-thirds of a full three-hundred-man company, and there are NVA motherfuckers everywhere, every day, and every minute of every hour of every fucking night. I have too much time left in country to worry about getting out alive, but I do pray for Rufus — that he might live to see the world again.

Oh my God, Jesus and Mary. I am Sorry, so sorry for my sins. Oh my God, Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us now — now and always — pray for us sinners now and at the miserable bloody mud-sucking time of our useless death.

Did I just say that Rufus was a big, black man? Well, excuse me, looks like I have sinned yet again. Forgive me Father, for I have lied: Rufus is no more of a man than a little plastic pawn on a cheap chess set is a man. Hell, in this crew I'm a salty old tar as a newly promoted Corporal with two whole years of the Green Machine under my twenty-eight-inch belt. I need to shave at least once every three days, that is if I don't have a cup of cream and a cat to lap the sweet fuzz off my face. I'll spend my twentieth birthday in a T.B. hospital in Queens, New York, my liver shredded by exploding fragments from an AK-47 round, my left shin shattered with half the calf gone, and a neat right angle bend in my finger where the knuckle went missing.

Oh my God, the rain; I feel it pounding through my body. My gut wound is bulging, writhing, and throbbing like a pack of snakes in a wet sack. Where does all this terror and fear come from? Who am I praying to? What are these prayers stuffed in my head like hibernating hornets that jump out and swarm at the slightest provocation?

Oh my God. I am so sorry, Holy Mary, Mother of God.

I can't say that I believe in God, that I know a darn thing about how holy Mother Mary might be, and, if I'm truly sorry about anything, I can only think that it must be because I am a human being and we are one massively fucked up lot.

I have been carrying a medley of prayers with me everywhere I go since my second day in country when I was unceremoniously appointed "tail-end Charlie" on a night ambush patrol and given the additional privilege of carrying the Willie Peter grenades — more about that special night later. Ever since, I have started every day quiet as a fresh-wakened deer fawn, lying still and motionless until I figure out where I am, who is next to me, and if there is anyone or any thing waiting nearby to eat me. If it looks like a go, I thank God for getting me through the night and I petition with a "Please, God, let the day be uneventful." If I am feeling uneasy, I plug in half of a quick Hail Mary, just in case shit goes down in a bad way there is someone out there praying for us sinners. All this and I don't even have a religion. I don't even know if I believe in God — or Goddess — unless I am under the duress of the "foxhole conversion syndrome" (that's when you think you might die any minute and you sure hope there is a God, or Goddess, and that He or She has a sense of humor).

I was raised to be a good little Irish Catholic boy, but all I remember from those days is Father Lavalee's bald head turning bright red when he railed on like some fire and brimstone Baptist preacher while I knelt on the hard, cold floor in the Poquonnock Bridge community center until my knees screamed. On Saturday we would watch The Shadow for a dime when, instead of a church, the building was used as a theatre for us project kids. It served better as a movie house than a place of worship, I am pretty sure.

I first got suspicious with this religion business when Uncle Johnny came home one Friday night with a meat-topped pizza. Since Grandma Annie died and he came to live with us, every Friday after he got done work as a janitor at the Ledyard Grammar School he had three beers at Sullie's then came home with a large anchovie pizza. "How come pepperoni tonight?" I asked him.

"Pope says," Uncle Johnny answered.

"Pope says?" I ask, not sure of what he's talking about. We never eat meat on Friday.

"Pope says pepperoni's OK. No more anchovies. You complaining?"

Hell no, I wasn't complaining. Confounded a little bit. Pope says and a lifetime of fish on Friday goes out the window. Since then I have developed graver concerns with some of the papal mandates — no contraception even though most every Catholic I know uses some sort of birth control. No abortions, no matter what. No marriage for priests so they just bang on the altar boys. No women priests. And so on ... Hard to be a righteous Catholic and a reasonable person at the same time.

My first girlfriend was a Mormon and her dad, an elder of the church, tried to convert me until the day he caught me exiting his Mormon residence by way of her Mormon bedroom window and he thought that he might rather break my legs than welcome me into his church. However, I have always found that Nephi and Moroni and the Urim and Thummin make for pretty good reading. Plus, it becomes immediately clear that the Mormon god is dedicated to an ad hoc application of his own religion. If some heavenly emissary should come to you with a mission, the success of which depends on lying, stealing, cheating, and even murder, why you have been given a holy green light to make as much mayhem as needed to carry out your assigned project. Don't you go and worry yourself about those niggling ten-commandments — all that is simply regulatory tripe for the masses.

The Jewish and Muslim religions have more rules than I can abide on any given day, particularly the dietary restrictions (life without BLT's??), and I could not tolerate the funny headgear for long — not to mention that my nasal passages are not large enough to sing a proper praise to Allah and I get sick when I spin. Ramakrishna holds a special place in my heart and I am a big fan of the Mongolian Growling Monks, but I do not toe the Tao of either the Hindu or the Buddhist because once I have cranked my right foot onto my left thigh I cannot for the life of me get my left foot to crawl up into the little hole onto my right thigh, which, according to my research, is an essential rite of passage. My loss too, because I could really get behind a program of tantric sex as a way to achieve enlightenment.

I wanted to be a Wiccan earlier on in my life, but my girlfriend wouldn't let me take my pants off in mixed company. And, while I do enjoy crystal gazing, feather waving, stuffed grape leaves, and a good greasy massage just as much as the next new-age fellow, please spare me the canned elevator jazz, proselytizing pleadians, and the ever-present, nauseatingly trite spiritual justification for your freaking BMW, your time share high-rise in Keawakafreakingpahu, and your cherubic Chilean twins, bought and paid for by the Holy Purse of Smiling Abundance. "Pennies from Heaven" is a swell song, but do you really believe that there is any nickel in existence that was not scraped from the blood and froth of exploited workers or forged from the raw essence of our dear planet being squeezed dry to near dead? Whoops; there I go again ... Don't worry, heh heh ... Be happy, OK?

For a quick short list on the religious front, I am not a Rastafarian because I do not have enough hair, I get stupid when I smoke the ganja, and I don't understand the fuss over Haile Selassie. I am not a Zoroastrian because I don't know what that is, and I am not a Gnostic because I don't want to have sex with my mother or eat dead babies. I was a Good Humor Man once but I couldn't keep my whites white, and I have been permanently banned from the Communist party because I would not accept doctrine on say-so alone, plus I told Bruce to shove it up his ass.

If I have ignored the many Bible-thumping sects of America in this small diatribe, I can only quote Stephen Daedelus when, after he announces that he has given up his (Catholic) religion, he is asked if this means he has become a Protestant: "I said I have given up my religion, not my self-respect." Enough said.

The closest I have ever come to accepting a messiah is when Rodney King said, "Why can't we all just get along?" Such an excellent fucking question.

Oh my God, my God. I am so sorry for all the misery. Please forgive me my sins ... Hail Mary full of grace, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. I deliberately leave out the part about doing penance and amending my ways when recite my version of the Act of Contrition because, try though I have, it never took and I keep right on doing whatever it is that makes me feel like apologizing to God day in and day out.

Still, it rains. I would stop my prayers, search for Rhonda, seek solace in a soggy, full-body hug, but I cannot move. Pure terror pervades every inch of my body; sweat and the greasy sludge of fear pool up in the little trench of my crushed sternum; my normally dead slow pulse (forty beats a minute) is racing along at a good ninety or so. If I could see my eyes they would be wide and whiter than a moonlit skull in a snow bank; the blood has all drained to my belly and set my innards squirming like the entrails of a swamp in a summer squall. If I should drop off to sleep any time tonight, I would surely meet Minh — I cannot count the times he has visited my dreams. Running (I am always full out running) legs pounding, heart racing, I leap the tangle of tightly woven roots, dodge the tree, the large grasping limb, barrel through the light brush as sweat pours over my face, stings as I turn, glance over the low shoulder — six, or eight, or a full dozen, or who knows how many small brown/green figures in hot pursuit, dashing, darting between the trees and who have not found me — yet. I dive into a thicket of brush, twisting to backside down for a soft landing. I am about to be shot, blown up, or worse, very much worse, captured as a play-toy for this angry enemy. But still I turn to avoid needless scratches and the raked tines of harsh undergrowth flensing the skin from my face. I huddle, crouched and curled into the smallest shape I can be, quiet and nearly invisible but for my saucer-sized, fear-whitened eyes. The soldiers are walking now, searching the area. The muzzle of an AK-47 parts the small leaf-laden twigs in front of me. Peering down the barrel of his weapon, I recognize Minh, although he is not smiling like the time we shared a dinner of boiled duck and breadfruit in his home. Minh recognizes me. His face is a shiny pecan brown, glistening with sweat and rain. His lips are tightened with anger, but I can see the wavering uncertainty in his dark almond eyes. The silky black hairs on his upper lip twitch. He pushes the rifle deeper into the bush — no more than a foot from my face. I hear some shouting in the distance; Minh responds with a harsh oriental retort, withdraws his weapon and continues. This is the good dream.

In the other dream, there are no people, no faces, no running — just the bleak and dark emptiness of pure dread. The terror grows, demonizes, and consumes any little bit of mortality I might lay claim to. I awake, always with a surge, a sharp intake of breath. Like a leviathan from too far and too long in the crushing depths, I rise to the surface, my whole being screaming for air, for light, for life — my body lies completely motionless all the while, drenched, just like the whale in a salty brine only mine was born from the bottomless sea of fear. Neither Rufus nor I are afraid to fight, or afraid to die. I — we are warriors, good soldiers — proven on this broken-down battlefield again and again. What do we fear? Certainly not a God we do not know. Maybe I should ask Homer, he and I knew nothing of fear.

* * *

Homer held his breath until he was just as red as a sunburned beet. Being a freckle-faced carrot-top of some seventeen years, he was prone to a good blush, but this was way beyond his usual range of crimson hues. Homer and I were both holding our breath in an attempt not to laugh. His face was screwed up like a Scotsman's mug at the annual girning bout. We were perched about twenty feet up a small oak tree just beyond the left field of the Dow Chemical Little League ball park. Spread across the park, from home plate to the furthest reaches of centerfield, were over a dozen Connecticut State Troopers, complete with high-power rifles, telescopes, megaphones, and police dogs. The megaphones kept repeating "HOMER, CHUCK, HOMER, CHUCK. COME OUT WE NEED TO TALK. HOOMMMERR. CHHUUUUK." If there was just one comedian in the bunch who said "Olly Olly Oxen Free" or some such nonsense, we would have both fallen out of the tree laughing and that would have been the end of that. What was causing the relentless urge to bust a gut was the trooper with the German Shepherd passing right under our tree. Don't ask me why he couldn't figure out where we were: Maybe he was so stiff necked, the way those cops are, that he couldn't look up; maybe the dog had a snout full of Dow Chemical stink and couldn't smell anything else — I was just glad they didn't find us. I would have occasion to recall this dumb-ass trooper's lapse of vigilance later, when I was the searcher, and be mighty glad of the lesson: Look up, look down, look all around — stop, listen, smell.

That night, after the search was called off, Homer and I pondered what we might have done to prompt such a dedicated effort toward nabbing a couple of light-weight delinquents like us. We knew most of the local cops and the staties who did this beat. Usually they caught us at home, took us aside for a little chat, then either left us with a warning (and a couple of angry parents) or hauled us down to the station for a more thorough going over (this was all before lawyers discovered the untapped potential of defending the errant youth of America and the mental health community deciding that we were suffering from a broad spectrum of conduct disorders and could really use a hamburger to go with our fries). Homer had an old car-theft charge that he was supposed to do a few months for and, as far as I knew, they had never got the goods on me, barring a fight or two, although there was rarely a time when Homer and I were not both equally culpable in the many petty crimes, like burning down the bus stop every Halloween. There was the time that I took a solo midnight joyride in a ten-wheel dump truck. It was just too great of an opportunity to pass up. My girlfriend's little brother had found the keys in a construction site adjacent to their home and I weaseled them away with big plans for the night's entertainment. Break my heart with a crooked stick, I couldn't find a soul to impress with my wheels even though I drove it all the way to the Dew Drop Inn and stopped for a soda. I did discover, when I careened onto the heaving, rutted, dirt trail called Gungywamp Road that those big trucks bounce a lot without a load as I was tossed about in that cab like a lone piece of popcorn in a red hot kettle.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Fifty Years In A Foxhole"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Charles A. Kniffin.
Excerpted by permission of Sunbury Press Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Authors Note, v,
Chapter 1: OH MY GOD!, 1,
Chapter 2: MOVE OUT, 12,
Chapter 3: CRY IN THE NIGHT, 27,
Interlude 1: YOUTH, 41,
Chapter 4: WATER, WATER, EVERYWHERE, 46,
Chapter 5: EMPTY RIDDLES, 63,
Chapter 6: EVERY DAY IS A HOLIDAY, 81,
Chapter 7: FRIENDLY FIRE, 99,
Chapter 8: BIRTH OF A DREAM, 116,
Interlude 2: THE MIDDLE TIME, 134,
Chapter 9: THE TIN MAN AND THE TIGER, 138,
Chapter 10: I AM AMERICA, 157,
Chapter 11: A NIGHT OF NOTHING, 174,
Chapter 12: HEADING NORTH, 194,
Chapter 13: SEPTEMBER 24: GOING OVER THE TOP, 217,
Chapter 14: SO WHAT, 234,
Epilogue: A NOTE TO MY COMRADES, 254,
Notes, 258,
About the Author, 259,

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