Boots, Boots

Early in the morning we were each given an orange and turned loose.
We all moved out into the hills and underbrush looking for places to hide.
We covered our hands and faces with mud and began to split up.
Walked up a stream for a distance, then into some heavy underbrush.
I pulled my hat low down over my ears.
Sat and listened ... and ate the orange.
The sun was beginning to get hot.
In the distance there was lots of shouting, and dogs barking and guns firing.
I slid down into a gully beneath the thickest cover I could find.
Lay on my belly, face down not moving.
I heard the voices and dogs coming closer.
Trucks ... out on the dirt road;
Tromping footsteps through the underbrush.
They came close but not close enough.
I never lifted my head but I heard them pass by.
Then, it became fairly quiet for some time.
At ten o'clock the siren sounded.
Anyone not captured was required to give themselves up.
Those were the rules at this school:
survival, evasion, resistance, escape.

We, who had managed to evade, were marched at gunpoint.
A loose gaggle ... hands behind our heads ... back to the compound.
Some had been captured before they ate their oranges,
and had them confiscated.
We were made to fall into a formation.
Most of the aviators were "nuggets" on their first tour of duty.
I had done a two year stint as a flight instructor,
and another as a FACSFAC schedules officer.
This was my third tour.
Turned out, I was the senior ranking officer. "SRO".
We formed a crisp formation and began to "report".
With each report the lead officer of that small group would salute. I would return the salute.
The guards would hit our right arms with sticks and shout,
"no salutes, keep your hands at your sides"
We completed our report without salutes but with diligent military bearing.
We were already becoming a strong cohesive group.

We were each given a hood and told to put it over our heads and keep it there.
Then guards began to push and shove each of us to a box.
3 foot x 3 foot x 3 foot.
A slab of plywood slid down in the front.
Kept us in an enclosed sitting position.
I took a peek out from under the hood.
There was not much light in the box.
Guards moving up and down the lines of boxes.
Banging on the tops with sticks, shouting to keep our hoods over our heads.
I kept mine over the bridge of my nose.
As I slouched down and tilted my head back,
I could see light through some of the cracks in my box.
Could here fellow aviators being taken out of their boxes.
Shouting, pushing, shoving, hitting.
They seemed to get all of the others but me.

Eventually my door flew up and I quickly snapped my head forward,
allowing the hood to fall down into place.
I was pulled out and taken to the interrogation room.
The first guard was calm, polite ... almost respectful.
I remained silent.
He quietly derided me.
A one way conversation.
After several minutes he left. I stayed at attention.
Several guards came back in with another "prisoner".
They strapped him down on a board.
A new, severely stern guard began to ask me questions. I remained silent.
They put a cloth over the other aviator's face and poured water on it.
He spasmed, twisted, gagged and choked.
I gave my name.
More water on the other fellow, as I stood untouched.
I gave my rank.
More water.
I gave my serial number.
More water.
I began to make up stories.
And so it went. Two kinds of torment. One intent.

Day and night for two days the music blared non-stop.
Relentless banging, jarring rhythm.
"Boots, Boots" then some deriding lyrics
and again "Boots, Boots"
On and on and on, over and over and over.
The interrogations went on too, as did the banging on the roof tops and shouting.

Late on the second night I was ready to get out of the box.
I could not detect any activity outside around my place.
I got my head down between my knees and ever so slowly inched the door upward.
Looking beneath the crack at the bottom I could see no activity.
The loudspeakers were playing a deriding female voice in a foreign language.
Not so loud but still annoying enough.
I lifted the door higher and saw no movement.
As quietly as I could, I slid out to the shadows and lowered the door.
Slithered around behind the row of boxes and lay perfectly still.
No movement or response that I could detect.
Ever so slowly I began to work my way along the ground to the end of the row.
Never made it to the end.
Bright lights, dogs barking, much shouting and gun fire at the periphery.
I was taken to the edge of the compound, stripped naked.
A garden hose was turned on and I was watered from head to toe.
In the cold, night, mountain air I was beyond frigid. Shaking uncontrollably.
No way to know how long this lasted.
Finally I was taken to the interrogation room and given my flight suit.
Smoke was blown in my face by an angry guard who shouted at me about arrogance.
I was shoved and smacked and reminded that I was the SRO.

We had had nothing to eat for two days. It was approaching noon.
I was told to take my turn stirring the huge pot of stew over the open fire.
I was told it would be our meal.
It was putrid. Rotten meat and vegetables.
Made me gag just to look at it or smell it.
Didn't know what I would do if they tried to force me to eat it.

We were all brought back out to the center of the compound and
told to take off our hoods and fall into formation.
We did our "report".
We did it without saluting but with great pride and military bearing.
I turned to the Camp"commandante" and reported all men present and accounted for.
He sneered comments of my arrogance and walked away, toward the guard shack.

We heard a deafening loud roar and gunfire at the perimeter of the compound.
The rest of the guards began running, shouting and pointing.
A pair of F-8's flew over at tree-top level and kicked into afterburner.
Pulled their noses up, to a straight vertical climb.
The loudspeakers began to play the "Star Spangled Banner"
and the American flag went up the flag pole.
We all stood at attention and saluted.
Many of us had tears in our eyes.
I looked to my left and noticed that one of the guards had kicked over
the pot of "stew" as he had left.
Good riddens!
And we were on our way home.

It was only 50 hours.
But the Navy had found that too many POW's had died in Korea.
Simply because they were unprepared.
SERE made a huge difference in Viet Nam.
It is also outstanding training for just living life.
For paying attention,
Owning every moment,
Embracing clear-sighted Love,
Witnessing the dichotomy between darkness and light,
Understanding Freedom,
... and not taking life or living for granted.
That was half a lifetime ago ... 28 years.
I was 27.