Do you believe that silence can be louder than noise?
In Vietnam we marines got used to odd sounds, clamors and clatters, screeching noises, thunder, blasting metallic crunches, ground-rumbling earthquake-type poundings, rifle pings and pops, the perpetual commotion of choppers’ whop-whops and jets’ discharges, rata-tat-tats, and who knows what else? It was always around us, always there.
Even so, in Khe Sanh, such commonplace din was just “out there” …sort of like a radio’s volume knob being adjusted way up or down by acts we usually couldn’t actually see. It made a guy jumpy because we couldn’t always know what it meant …but we acquiesced. Nevertheless, in another way, it was unconsciously comforting because routinely we knew these were our weapons, our planes, our helicopters, our own actions. In the book Just Dust (for more information about this book, go to Amazon.com), I talk about how such repetitious certain sounds became …so repetitious that we quickly learned how to sleep amid all this racket. Sleep, after all, was so very precious …more precious than the distraction of noise. Such jarring shakes and spiky bangs actually could lull one to ponder the strangest wafting dreams, escorting us to whiz away into slumberland without fear or distress.
In the book, Just Dust, however, I recount an event far less ordinary. After all, sometimes sounds do change.
Incoming mortars, for example, had their own unique jet engine-esque hissing roar trailed by explosions and whooshing debris colliding with nearby objects or even with unsuspecting marines just lying in their bunks. As these pounding smashes grew louder, we recognized these mortars were being “walked in” toward us. We had to act right then and there, and we did. Then on other occasions, the rapid pings and pops of gunfire zinged or buzzed past us …we all knew what was happening; and, our alertness switch toggled “on.” We ducked. We hit the dirt. We splashed. It became a routine response. We didn’t think about it much; we thought about “what’s next?”.
But there’s a segue I talk about in Just Dust where all of these familiar but antagonistic sounds played a different role. A significant part of this particular story had less to do with mere preparation or endurance as it did with outright survival …not just avoidance of death, mind you, but how the act of being spared played out with many other events that followed (the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, need to be considered in situations depicted in this event).
Silence was the shapeless trigger that night, and a shadowy tattoo-like companion for me thereafter.
Do you remember the lyrics to Simon & Garfunkel’s song, The Sounds of Silence? Hello, darkness, my old friend …I did one night.