THE BLACK MILE

By John Thomas Tuft

Scotty grew up in an All American town, with an All American family, attended an All American church, and played All American sports at an All American high school. In 1969, at the age of 18 he was given a number in the draft lottery, drew a high number and ended up in boot camp at the ripe old age of 18 and a half. Inducted into the Army and indoctrinated into the eternal shibboleth of “following orders,” he was shipped to Vietnam to explore the last of his teen years as the point man in a squad of ‘night creepers.’ While other nineteen-year-olds were exploring the vagaries of college life or listening to Guess Who sing “American Woman” on their way to a shift as grunt labor in a steel mill, Scotty was walking the black mile. He led a file of grunts through the pitch black of a midnight patrol through rice paddies, around a sleeping village and into the jungle to try and ambush a supply route.

The black mile is the deep darkness, so black you cannot see your hand in front of your face, but you keep going. Being absolutely quiet and invisible. Through a landscape that is invisible, and if the darkness suddenly grows quiet, all the night noises abruptly cease, you know that there is mortal danger at hand. Step by careful step he treads, because those creeping behind him depend on Scotty for their lives. Scotty has some kind of sixth sense about finding his way along the black mile, feeling the texture of the darkness in a way even he does not understand. But one of the irrefutable rules of war is that no one involved on the ground, wielding the weapons, stalking close encounters with death itself, is invincible. In truth, there are no superheroes. It is human beings hunting each other for as many reasons as there are lies in a day.

The blackness is ripped apart by the painful glare of magnesium flares. Guns and mortars open up on the night creepers. There are curses, grunts, cries of panicked fear. Explosions, noise, pandemonium and pain. Terror mixed with plaintive cries for mothers. Scotty keeps his head and directs them in defense. It is all they can do to keep the attackers at bay. They fight until dawn. In the pale light, casualties become real. When the choppers finally arrive, Scotty drags himself over a skid, plops in the doorway, numb. Just before it dusts off, a corpsman runs over and hands him a package. It looks like any other package of meat, maybe two pounds, with a splinter of bone that sticks his palm, drawing blood. Like any other package except for the dog tags wrapped around it, identifying it as The Kid, 18 year old Clarence, from Syracuse. Scotty cradles it close, promising to get The Kid home, so he can drink the Devil’s tears with his fellow fallen soldiers.

After forever and a day, Scotty rotates home and takes a job in one of the coal mines that feed the steel mills along the mighty Ohio River. The mine goes down and down, mile after mile, extracting fuel for fortunes and the unfortunate alike. Scotty keeps his head down, does the dirty work, tries to ignore the dreams and screams that haunt his nights. The darkness is almost comforting in its familiarity. Then one day, there is a cave in, a collapse in the mine and Scotty and his squad of miners are trapped down below, a black mile from the surface.

Scotty helps the men take stock of their situation. No food, no water, no more batteries for their lamps. But there is one path, he thinks, for their escape. They must first go deeper into the blackness, away from the shortest route which is blocked, find the ventilation shaft for the planned expansion of the mine, and climb through the darkness. Knowing that he must become a chimera of folly and fortitude, Scotty promises to lead the men out of there, or die trying. And so, they set out through the eerie quiet and pressing darkness. Admitting that strange sixth sense into his mind once again, Scotty leads them in night creeping, trying desperately to ignore the screaming inside his head that only he can hear.

Continually calling to them and cajoling each by name, Scotty penetrates the black mile. Inch by inch, he leads them out of the blackness and toward the light. When they finally emerge, Scotty finds a seat away from the others and as the sun rises over the wooded hills, someone hands him a packet of food to help him revive. But it is too much. He is back in the jungle, seated in the doorway of the chopper, wondering why he did not bring everyone through the black mile. It breaks him. He just wants to drink the Devil’s tears with his comrades.

Twenty years later, the mills are gone, and Vietnam is one country. Scotty lives under a bridge, while far away other soldiers still creep through the night thinking no one has ever done this before. Alone in the darkness, Scotty traces the old scar on his hand. Eventually, he quietly pleads, the black mile has to lead him home…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.