The Prairie Spy

Alan “Lindy” Linda

Although I have a fairly in-depth knowledge of firearms, due to having owned a hardware store that sold guns, as you know, I do not have an in-depth background in deer hunting. My first deer, which happened this season, came about because there was no one else in my enclosed, heated stand to pull the trigger. It seemed then that I had to. And I did.

There was a moment when I first lifted the rifle to my shoulder, and when I first peered into the scope, when I was reminded of—and taken back to—Vietnam. Fifty years ago now, but in some ways still like yesterday.

My assignment was to a combat base as a “Special Electronic Instrument” technician, an assignment which I got due to my age—I turned 25 in Vietnam—and my background—I had a secret clearance from a civilian job—and my civilian education—in electronics. Part of my job involved repair of the Starlight rifle scope, which was a passive amplifier of existing moon or star light. I was supposed to have a fragmentation grenade in my possession, with which I was supposed to destroy the service truck and any accompanying top secret Starlight parts were we over run.

Because of questionable decision making by the officers in charge of us, the grenade was taken away. Also taken away was all our rifle ammunition, which we were also deemed unworthy of possessing. There was also a padlock on machine gun ammo in the bunkers on the perimeter. “Someone will come and unlock it if you need it,” we were told. Right, like should we be over run, there will be lots of time for that.

So I built my own private Starlight scope out of spare parts, which was against all rules and regulations, and took it with me when it was my turn to pull a 24-hour bunker duty. I had to keep it hidden, even from fellow soldiers with whom I manned the bunker. These were, you remember, 18- and 19-year-old kids, and I didn’t trust their ability to remain silent regarding this.

It’s around midnight. I’m alone on top of what might best be described as a kid’s fort made out of piled up sandbags. It’s another warm, dry, beautiful night, cloudless, no background light to mask the sparkling light of the stars. Except for the monsoon season, Vietnam had beautiful skies.

I have the Starlight scope up to my eye. It shows me a hazy, greenish-yellow jungle landscape out there about two hundred yards. I’m sweeping it back and forth. It’s not easy to see through, because it is a passive scope, meaning it can only gather and amplify existing light sources from the stars and the moon. Were it cloudy, it would be worthless. But not tonight. I can see a Vietnamese graveyard out there through a gap in the jungle, with its weird round graves. Past the graveyard is a small railroad trestle, and as I examine that, I see some black-pajama-dressed Vietnamese kind of milling around.

There isn’t supposed to be anyone out there. I watch some more, but because of the murkiness of the scope, I cannot really tell what they’re doing. So now, I’m in a bind. I cannot call the sergeant of the guard and tell him I see something out there, because I’m not supposed to have the scope, so how could I see something?

So I grab the phone, give it one crank to get the next bunker north of me. Someone picks it up, someone like me, on bunker duty, and answers. I say: “Do you see those guys running around out there through that gap in the jungle?” He of course does not. “Right through there, about ten o’clock your position?” No, still not, but I can tell he’s looking, because he asks me for clarification.

This goes on for several minutes, and finally I say: “You should call it in. It’s closest to your bunker.” After several more minutes, he does. The bunker line comes alive with officers and NCOs. But they don’t have a Starlight scope either.

It’s like a comedy, one which I sat and watched. The sergeant of the guard gets chewed out by the officer of the guard, who in turn is being chewed on by the officer of the day. Me? I’m hiding that scope in the weeds behind my bunker, just in case.

Those guys out there in pajamas? A couple of flares scared them away. I to this day don’t know what they were doing out there.

Fifty years ago today. A quick memory. Triggered by a rifle scope.