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Shooting Flies with My M16
By Mike Paul
The cloud of flies never seemed to change, yet it constantly changed. They looped around in a random pattern that was so intensely random that I suspected it wasn't random. They had their area that was always equal distance from me and from three sides of the guard tower. Just watching the cloud didn't seem to reveal any pattern, so I decided to just watch single flies. I locked my eyes on a fly, but I soon lost it in its constant abrupt twists and turns.
The military can make you wait like nothing else on the planet. Wait long enough and the mind can get seriously loopy. I was in a 40-foot guard tower overlooking a landing strip in some horrid little backwater in Vietnam. I'd been there for hours and I had hours to go before being relieved. I only had my steel pot, my M16, and a couple of canteens of water.
There was little possibility of being attacked because none of the hooch girls (they did our laundry) had disappeared. They always were gone about a day before we were attacked. Even so, I'd occasionally look down in the hopes of seeing a VC, anything to break up the boredom. I did four-hour shifts in this tower as punishment for screwing up.
I had read or re-read every book on the whole base. The few Playboys were completely beaten to death. I'd been up there for four-hour shifts (I traded back and forth with another guy being punished) for about two weeks and I had another week to go.
It was 90 degrees or more (no thermometer so it was always a guess), no wind, any higher humidity and we'd be under water. I'd sit and sweat and watch the flies buzz and fight in a little cloud above my head. If I nodded off, the little tormentors would land on me and try to get in my eyes, so I couldn't sleep. And you had to keep a stick or something moving in front of your face to keep them from landing.
Every now and then an incredibly loud aircraft would take off or land. The sun would move and I'd watch the shadow move across the floor of the tower. Gun fire could be heard occasionally. I'd shift to a new spot to keep out of the sun. But no matter what, I was sweating and sitting on a pile of sandbags listening to the flies buzz. Hour after hour after hour.
The little cloud of flies got my attention again. The cloud seemed to always stay about the same size, and the number of flies resting various places seemed to stay the same. I started counting how many were flying and how many were sitting. I got so I could count them pretty accurately give or take two or three. My counting became important so I kept tab by writing down my counts on the side of a sandbag. I waved an empty sandbag in the cloud and dispersed them, but soon they were back and at about the same count. So I killed a few and then counted them again. The count was about the same. So I counted the ones sitting, about the same. So I killed some more and then counted again. The flying and sitting count was about the same. So I counted the corpses on the floor. That amount should have reduced the flying and sitting populations by the same amount. But it didn't.
What's going on here? Was there only a certain number allowed to fly or sit? Was that number determined by the size of the soaring area over a prospective food source (meaning me)? Was there a hidden population of reserve flies always there to fill the empty slots? Was there a master fly in charge of the count and would signal when more reserves were needed?
Like I said, you get loopy.
While staring at the flies, I got inspiration. I thought, "I wonder if I could shoot a fly with my M16?"
Shooting them out of the air didn't seem possible, but they'd land on the sandbags and sit there awhile. I got out my rifle and slid a magazine into it. I aimed and did a little calculation to adjust my aim for something as close as one foot and waited for a plane to take off or land. You could have set off a hand grenade when one of those planes, especially the four-engine C-130's, took off and nobody would hear the bang of the gun.
I fired. Missed the little bugger by 2-3 inches. Finding another one, I adjusted my calculation, waited for a plane, and fired. Still missed it by about an inch. Adjusted and fired again. Got the little prick. Boy did that feel good. And it killed some time. The whole thing must have taken a good 20 minutes.
Not entirely sure I wasn't attracting attention, I casually leaned over the side of the tower and gazed around like I was diligently looking for Charlie. Not a body moving. It was noonish or later and everybody was staying out of the sun. I didn't have to worry about a sneak inspection (although they tried), as anybody coming up the ladder would cause the whole tower to shake and sway. I sat down again.
Looking up, I noticed that some flies would land on the railing and I could see them in profile. That was better because it wouldn't leave a bullet hole. So adjusting my aim, I started pot-shotting the little bastards off the railing. I shot holes in the railing a few times, but I got so I could hit them first time, every time. I actually ran out of ammo. And amazingly my shift was over — I'd killed not only a bunch of flies, but a bunch of time. I quickly cleaned up the brass and shifted the sandbags around so my partner wouldn't see the bullet holes.
Over the next week I shot every fly that came into that tower. It was an amazing release of frustration and hostility. I always went down now feeling better than when I went up. My partner wondered why I was now bringing bandoleers of ammo up the tower. I told him, "To shoot flies." He looked at me like I was nuts and climbed out of the tower.
I got so I could sometimes shoot two flies per aircraft taking off. Just one when an aircraft landed as the noise wasn't sustained as long. Each time I fired, all the flies were startled and it would take a second before they'd land on the railing again and give me a target. Periodically I ran out of flies (so there went my theory about a hidden reserve unit of flies) and I was pissed there weren't any more to shoot. But I didn't have long to wait because in Vietnam there are always more flies. And I was very good at waiting.
Michael Paul is a long-time VVAW member. He joined in 1971 when he got home, lapsed in membership for many years, but rejoined a few years ago. He was in Vietnam August 1970 to August 1971. He went to NCO school and achieved Buck Sergeant. His unit was B-Battery, 2nd of the 12th Arty. He got 14 days leave before going to Vietnam, didn't like how short that was, so he took another 16 and they took a stripe. Spent his year there as a Corporal.