One Moonless Night
One moonless night, the air was humid and the incessant buzzing of hungry mosquitoes trying to find a way through the tightly tucked mosquito netting made me nervy and irritable.
My toes scraped reassuringly against the canvas boots that lay under the sheet with me. You quickly learned to do that in this part of the world where, otherwise, stepping out of bed in the middle of the night and sliding your feet into your boots, you might feel the wriggling of an insect, possibly a scorpion, or even a snake against your toes.
I tried to ignore the hard lump under what passed for a pillow. The safety catch was on, so I should be OK.
Pat Smith had a firm rule that no weapons were to be kept by anyone at the hospital. The military authorities in the area all knew her and the wonderful work she had been doing for the past eighteen years in the highlands. She was highly respected by all the Allied forces in the area, who were deeply concerned at all times about our security. The Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army were active in the vicinity and the American military simply couldn’t understand how we could cope without weapons or armed guards.
One of the commanding officers in the area was so worried about us, that he eventually prevailed upon me to keep a .38 calibre revolver for use in an emergency. He showed me how to load it, secure it and use it, and also gave me a box of CS-gas grenades. I hid the grenades in a cupboard in my room, and kept the gun secreted under my pillow.
Another of Pat Smith’s rules, and one that was strictly enforced, was that none of the Western nursing and administrative staff were permitted to spend a night at the hospital. We lived in a compound, up a gently sloping hill and about a kilometre away from the hospital.
This arrangement was the result of a horrifying incident two years earlier when a German nurse called Renate Kuhnen had stayed at the hospital to watch over a particularly sick child, when Vietcong guerrillas broke into the wards looking for Pat Smith. They interrogated and killed several patients, then found Renate and forcibly abducted her. She was held prisoner for a whole year, and paraded on Hanoi television, although she had in fact been kept in various North Vietnamese camps, always on the move, but never too far from the Kontum area. She was eventually released on condition she left the country, and under threat of death should she ever return. Since that time, Dr Smith was adamant that we work only from sunrise to sunset, leaving Montagnard personnel to take care of things at night.
We lived in the compound up the hill, entered through a door made of light trellis work, which we solemnly padlocked once we were all in. Actually, any one of us could have brought the door down with a firm shove, but it felt more comforting to padlock it at night. Our living quarters, basic but large, airy and comfortable, were housed in two buildings about a hundred yards apart. The open-plan living-dining room in one building was a haven of peace and relaxation at the end of a back-breaking day: the comfy rattan sofas and chairs reminded me of the chairs my father had brought from Singapore all those years ago; the generous selection of paperback novels and magazines were brought by American military personnel and other visitors from Saigon. As at Qui Nhon, a generator provided sporadic electricity; otherwise we used kerosene lamps.
Along with the shower rooms and a small kitchen, sleeping quarters were in the second, single-storey building, reached by a narrow concrete path edged with scarlet and pink bougainvillea and tropical shrubbery. Eight of us – two to a room - shared the four large bedrooms, furnished with army cots. This building was surrounded by a low wall, about four feet high, topped by a three-foot high trellis covered in more bougainvillea and climbing plants.
My roommate was Barbara, the other English nurse, who had been in Vietnam far longer than I. Her nerves were absolutely shredded and she needed to go home. Meanwhile, she had to take sedatives to sleep. Barbara was a gentle and efficient nurse, but I never got to know her well. So, my best friend and confidante was not my roommate but Gloria, the indispensable American administrator.
Gloria, from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, was larger than life, and one of life’s great characters. She was large, and somewhat plain, but blessed with a magnificent soprano voice that had been operatically trained. She also possessed the most infectious, roaring laugh I have ever heard. On Sundays, Gloria regularly sang at the church service held in a tent by the army padre, and soldiers came from miles around to hear her. I found the sight of these young men, many still in their teens, listening to her soaring, sublime voice singing the soprano arias from Madam Butterfly, intensely moving. I saw that, in those few shining moments, they were part of something magical, transported for a moment from the fear and violence and bloodshed.
Gloria’s voice – and her laugh – had that effect on people.
On that humid night in question, I lay musing for what seemed hours over the circumstances and surroundings in which I now lived and work. I must eventually have drifted off to sleep, because I was woken by a gentle shaking. There was Gloria, her fingers held to her lips in a silent ‘shush’, and clearly scared. She was shining a dim flashlight on to a large piece of paper on which she’d written, ‘I hear something outside.’
I quickly slipped my feet into my boots and, as I had told Gloria (and only Gloria), about the gun, I took it from under my pillow and disentangled myself from the mosquito net. Barbara, fast asleep, didn’t stir, and Gloria and I moved silently into the corridor. There was definitely some movement outside. My heart thudded painfully and I had trouble breathing. Gloria was behind me, hanging on to the tail of my flimsy cotton nightshirt. I held the gun out in front, both hands gripping the butt and sweat pouring into my eyes and down my chest. We must have made quite a sight as we slowly crept – terror mounting - round the entire building, following the stealthy sound we could hear outside.
Outside the kitchen area we had a U.S. military field telephone to use if help was needed. Everyone else was still asleep, and we thought that two terrified women seemed a better option than eight terrified women. So, instead of waking the others, we decided to use the emergency phone. I followed the official procedure: do not speak; crank the handle, and press the button that would alert the nearby base to our need for urgent attention. A red light blinked three times, acknowledging that they had received our message.
With no moon, the velvet blackness was suffocating, and all the time we could sense something outside. The wait for help seemed interminable, and I honestly thought my heart might give out before help came. My hands were so slippery with sweat I could barely keep hold of the gun.
At last we heard the rhythmic sound of feet, softly but swiftly coming towards our dwelling. A patrol of men was on its way. Suddenly, a flare split the darkness, and an American voice yelled, ‘Holy shit! Look at that. Get down, get down.’ This was quickly followed by bursts of M16 machine-gun fire. I didn’t just get down; I tried to dig a hole in the cement floor! Gloria started praying, which did not help calm my screaming nerves as the gun slipped from my sweaty grip and clattered away from me. Everyone else, now awake, came running from their rooms. More American voices called, ‘It’s okay, its okay. You can come out. Holy Shit, take a look at this.’
My shaking hands were incapable of opening the padlock. Someone had vomited. I think it was me. Gloria was still hugging the ground; the others were half asleep and confused. All Pat Smith wanted to know was who in hell was responsible for the gun.
Somebody unlocked the padlock, opened the door. There, just outside the doorway lay the body of a full-grown tiger. I could not believe my eyes. Its head was massive, its teeth enormous. This magnificent jungle creature could have swatted down the door to our quarters with one swipe of its paw. And there was I with a .38 revolver?! At best, I could have clipped its ear, only annoying the hell out of it.
In the morning the soldiers winched the glorious beast onto a truck and took it to their base. They told us it weighed exactly nine hundred and forty-six pounds and asked us if we wanted the skin. No, we did not. I have a photograph of it, though. I never touched a gun again and, boy, did I get a roasting from Pat Smith for having that revolver in the first place.
The tiger in these parts is the Indochinese tiger. Smaller and darker than the Bengal tiger, they feed on wild boar, water buffalo and, occasionally, monkeys and fish. The adult tigers are territorial and fiercely defensive, preferring dense vegetation for which their camouflage is ideally suited and where a single predator – as opposed to a pride - is not at a disadvantage. Among the big cats, only tigers and jaguars are strong swimmers, and are often found bathing, or in the vicinity of, rivers and lakes.
During the war, the bombing and the slash-and-burn creation of fire-breaks in both forests and open scrub forced the tigers away from their normal habitats, and their feeding patterns were severely disrupted. Increasingly, Montagnards had been reporting disappearances of people. When tribes people walked the mountain trails, they did so in long lines, one behind the other. Now there were often reports that the person last in line would simply vanish. Sometimes a trail of fresh blood was found; often there was no trace. They knew that this was the work of tigers looking for food. Before the bombing and disruption, tigers had rarely been known to be man-eaters. But things can change, and they surely and tragically did in that particular area.
London, England, England - Thursday, June 01, 2017 at 15:44:53 (EDT)