12 August 2012

The Rain Forest

The rain forests you see on National Geographic are usually peaceful places with birds singing and monkeys hooting.  The rain forest that you actually walk through is something else.  Nat Geo doesn't mention the stuff that the camera doesn't see or that they would rather just ignore.  There are lots of unsavory things in the rain forests of the world:  you find rats -- big rats; there are leeches too -- not the kind that swim in the lakes of Minnesota but little inchworm-like creatures that creep along the forest floor looking for their next blood meal; their are several species of mosquitoes, including the aggressive tiger mosquito, and being bitten by a mosquito is the first step toward being infected with malaria, among other lovely pathogens.  Malaria is an infection people die from.  Mosquitoes also carry infections like Yellow Fever, Dengue Fever (a.k.a. break-bone fever), the West Nile Virus, and several other pathogens you really don't want to come in contact with.

But, if you fly over rain forests, especially in places where people are shooting at you, you need to know how to get along in a hostile place like a rain forest.  For that reason, The Powers That Be declared that all of us going into combat in Southeast Asia really needed to go through the Jungle Survival course that was taught at Clark Air Base, Philippines.  Since we were going into a war zone, our curriculum needed to include getting around on the rain forest floor, what you could eat, what you should leave alone, and what might eat you.  We also learned more than we wanted to know about all the creatures, too tiny to see, that could make you sick -- or even kill you -- and what steps you might be able to take to protect yourself from them.  We also learned how to obtain and keep that most precious commodity in the rain forest: water.  And, since if we found ourselves running around on the rain forest floor, there was every likelihood that that we got there because someone shot us down and would be coming to gather us up to be added to their collection of POWs in The Zoo in Hanoi.  We were taught all the nifty hiding places there are in the rain forest -- especially places like snake-infested stands of bamboo so thick you have to squeeze into them sideways.  To keep things upbeat, however, there was a fair amount of training in the procedures for being snatched out of the rain forest by a big rescue helicopter; that included actually being snatched out of the rain forest by a big rescue helicopter.  That was some good stuff to know.

So.  One fine September day in 1971, the pilot I had gone through EB-66 training with at Shaw and I arrived at Clark Air Base for our week long course in surviving in the jungle.  We went through several days of classroom training, interspersed with practice sessions in letting ourselves down to the ground from tall trees, how to board the gadget that a rescue helicopter might lower to us, and what to do when the helicopter hauled us up into the helicopter (hang on and don't let go until they pry your hands off the gadget).  We also got to hear some of the rain forest sounds, such as gibbons hooting, and see how high a six-foot long Philippine crocodile can leap in trying capture prey (about the length of its body).  We saw what all kinds of venomous snakes look like, including various species of cobra, bamboo vipers, habus, and some other venomous snakes I can't recall now.  I still wonder if there are any snakes in Southeast Asia that aren't venomous.  Oh, yeah.  Pythons aren't venomous, but they can kill you if you mess with them.

After several days in the classrooms and the training grounds at Clark Air Base, we were ready for our camping trip into the rain forest.  We climbed aboard a HH-3 one morning and were flown out to a base camp at the foot of what they told us was an extinct volcano.  The whole world learned about twenty years later that the volcano was not extinct; it was only dormant.  The volcano has a name:  Pinatubo.  Where we trekked and camped on its flanks a lake now exists.

The helicopter deposited us at a Negrito base camp.  There we teamed up with a Negrito who would be our guide for our sleep over out there in that lush rain forest.  Then we all trekked single file along a trail that lead off into the rain forest.  For the short time we were in the sun the heat and humidity really were oppressive, but as soon as we entered the rain forest the heat dissipated quite a bit.  I was near the end of the column as we snaked through the rain forest; then somebody farther up in the column let out a yelp.  A Philippine cobra decided to slide across the trail just as he put his foot down; the cobra slid right over his boot and disappeared.  Welcome to the jungle.

Survival Rule One is set up some shelter.  We all were provided with a parachute canopy with shroud lines attached.  We were to go out into the forest and construct a para-hammock between two trees.  It took me a while to find two appropriate trees, string the hammock between the trees, tie off the hammock, and arrange a rain shelter and insect barrier over the hammock.  My partner, the pilot, got the job done quicker than I and already had his poncho on when the afternoon rain began to fall.  I was still struggling with the slippery shroud lines but eventually got my shelter set up.  But I was thoroughly soaked; putting on a poncho would have been a waste of time.

After we all got our camp sites set up it was time for a combination nature walk and foraging expedition.  The Negrito led the column and would stop here and there to show us plants that were edible -- and some that we should avoid.  He would take some of the edible plants, such as cassava, and things I can no longer recall.  We would eat those plants and roots with our evening meal.  All the while we were on our afternoon trek, the rain steadily drizzled through the forest canopy.  I didn't dry out much -- but then most of the rest of group were also soaked.  We had ample opportunity to note that the wet volcanic soil was extremely slippery; everyone was pretty well mud caked by the time our trek was over.  I can see why leather boots don't last long in the rain forest.  Back at camp, we got a course in jungle cooking and cuisine courtesy of our Negrito guide.  We found a stand of green bamboo and cut several lengths as thick as my forearm.  These became jungle pressure cookers/steamers.  The Negrito found some dead and dry bamboo and gave us a demonstration of how you can make a fire in a wet rain forest without needing matches.  He literally rubbed two pieces of bamboo together to get a fire going.  There is more detail to it than that, but I still am able to make a fire that way; all I need is a few pieces of dry bamboo and a large knife.

Following the instructions of our Air Force instructor and the Negrito, we put the gatherings from our afternoon foraging, along with some rice, into the green bamboo segments and threw them onto the camp fire.  In short order the green bamboo pressure cookers/steamers were sizzling and sputtering.  A few minutes later we pulled the bamboo cookers out of the fire and emptied their contents onto rain washed banana leaves.  We supplemented that with canned rations the USAF had thoughtfully provided.  It was pretty tasty, especially the cassava.  Our instructor told us to be sure and throw the empty ration tins into the fire and keep the fire going for a while.  Failure to do that would draw rats into the camp site.  Of course that advice was largely ignored.

After eating, we had a few more lessons in signaling using day/night flares, pen gun flares, and rocket flares.  That was entertaining -- especially when the pen gun flares ricocheted off of tree limbs.  The Negrito also gave us a demonstration in how to tap a large tree for its water.  With all the lessons completed for the day it was time to retire to our para-hammocks for the night.  It was pitch black out there in the rain forest, but I recalled about where my hammock was and stumbled along, with the help of a flashlight, until I found it.  I carefully crawled into the hammock, wet boots and all, and pulled the mosquito netting down around me.  There is only one way to lay in a hammock:  on your back.  In a para-hammock, the nylon stretches a lot and your body takes on the shape of a U; it is not the most comfortable way to spend the night.  But it beats sleeping on the jungle floor.

Shortly after I got situated in my hammock, my partner, the pilot, found his hammock several feet away and hopped in.  I could hear him arranging the mosquito netting.  Then there was a loud KA-RASH; that was followed by a long string of expletives.  I knew what had happened:  my partner's hammock had come loose from one of its moorings and dumped him on the ground.  From the string of obscenities coming from him I knew he hadn't been hurt.  Still, trying to suppress a snicker, I asked, "are you okay?"  He was.  Since it was pitch black, he declared that he was not going to try to retie the hammock and that he would be spending the night next to the camp fire.  Off he went toward the dying embers of the camp fire.

When Partner got to the camp fire he discovered three or four others still hanging around the camp fire.  They were too spooked by the blackness to go wandering out into the forest to find their hammocks.  So there were four or five people lying on the ground next to the embers of the former camp fire.  Then they heard the clinking and clanking of the ration cans that didn't make it into the camp fire.  The rats had come into the camp site to feed on whatever they could find.  So.  Four or five jungle survival students, lying there like so many corpses, on the muddy ground, next to an almost dead camp fire, when they all sat up in unison.  "What was that?", someone said.  Someone else said, "I don't know."  My partner, the pilot, said, "It was a rat!"  "How do you know it was a rat?", said a voice in the dark.  Partner said, "Because it had four wet feet and a long wet tail -- and it just ran across my face!"  With that news the rest of the folks around the camp fire lost their fear of the inky blackness of the rain forest.  It became imperative to revive that camp fire.

All the rest of the night I could hear "chop, chop, chop, chop" and see flashlights floating through the darkness as the camp fire folks searched for enough dry bamboo to keep the rats at bay.  At some point in the early morning darkness a loud rolling CRASH came from up slope of us.  It had to be either a big tree toppling or a land slide; I don't know which.  In any case the sound died away rather than get louder.  Finally, the sky started to lighten as morning twilight arrived.  My body had been in a U-shape for several hours by that time and I had to pee.  I briefly considered trying to pee over the edge of my hammock but it looked like that might result in me lying face down in the mud, so I carefully pulled up the mosquito netting and worked my way to a sitting position in the hammock.  Looking over the side of the hammock I could see a nice fat red leech inchworming along forest floor.  That was one leech who had recently had breakfast.

Everyone gathered around the smoldering remains of the camp fire and awaited the instructor and the Negrito.  We ate whatever rations we had left for breakfast.  That turned out to be a mistake for me.  This was the last day in the rain forest and we would be practicing our E&E skills.  We formed a column and hiked to a place where we would practice hiding from the Negritos.  The incentive for the Negritos was a pound of rice for every evading student they found.  They would get five pounds of rice for rescuing a student in distress.  We were each given a loop that had several plain metal dog tags and one red one.  The red one indicated you were in distress; the rest just indicated that a Negrito had earned another pound of rice.

We were given to time to fan out and try to find a good hiding place.  I ended up in a low spot in the ground that was open to the sky.  There were some bamboo clumps around, but I could just feel all the beady reptilian eyes watching me so I didn't try disturbing whatever snakes were lurking in the bamboo.  There were lots of vines covering the ground so I decided to hide in plain sight.  I lifted the vines, which were like a huge green blanket, and crawled under.  I curled up into as small a ball as I could and just lay there on my side.  A hat with mosquito netting over it broke up the features of my face.  And then the Negritos came hooping and hollering after us.  Several ran right through the patch of vines I was hiding under but never saw me.  One almost stepped on my head.  I lay there quietly trying not to move at all.  At some point some kind of insect started boring into my left cheek as I lay there.  I ignored it for as long as I could and then, ever so slowly, I started to ease my left hand to my cheek to get rid of what was chewing on me.  I had barely moved when I heard a small voice:  "I see you."  I froze.  The voice came again:  "I see you."  I stayed still.  This time the elderly Negrito came over to the vines and pulled them back.  He looked down at me and said, one more time:  "I see you."  Busted.  I gave him a dog tag and headed into the common area where we were supposed to go after "capture." 

We were given a debriefing by the instructors and told to go back out and hide again.  I would have, but I was beginning to feel queasy.  Those rations I had for breakfast were coming back to haunt me. I sat there for a while awaiting the inevitable and then proceeded to unload my stomach contents a few times.  Having done that, and not feeling much better, I heard the call to load up.  Training was over and we were going to be trucked back to Clark Air Base.   It was raining again.  We were loaded into the back of an uncovered six-by and off we went.  I had another go at emptying my stomach in the back of that rain soaked truck.

After that, it was get dry.  Get cleaned up.  And catch the next ride for Korat Royal Thai Air Base.

No comments: