There’s something about the darkness that enthralls and frightens us. It’s something instinctual: something down in our DNA. Yet, we look up at the night sky in wonderment at the myriad of stars dancing across the heavens, searching those tiny pinpoints for life’s meaning.
The darkness frightens us: every unknown sound, even those that would be innocuous in the light of day, become strangely threatening and terrifying. It is very easy to let one’s mind get the better of him or her so that events which would seem laughable in the light of day take on a new and terrifying reality in the darkness.
I can think of two times in my life that link both my military service and my childhood and demonstrate this principle very poignantly.
When I was a young boy growing up in Indian Head, Maryland, I was part of the local Boy Scout troop. There was this area right there on the Potomac River where we would go and camp. The camp was on a little spit of land, which jetted out into the river and, of course, being on the military base, there was plenty of woodland to go around. It was one of my first campouts with the troop.
I remember my excitement at being able to camp out under the stars. We gathered that evening around the campfire, and our scoutmaster told us stories, starting out with the usual campfire tales and songs, but then one of the other assistant scoutmasters started telling us a story about the “Indian Head stalker.” The story had it that during World War II at the munition plants that had once been in the area, there was this man who worked at the plant, and during his time there an accident happened, which caused him to lose one of his hands. He ended up replacing it with a hook.
The story goes that his wife left him and he found out that his son had died in the war. This drove him mad, and he ended up killing his wife and her lover and running off into the woods. Every now and then, people would find the bodies of homeless people out in the woods which he had murdered, their hands severed to replace his lost hand. As our scoutmaster was delving into these details, one of the other adult leaders snuck up behind us and came leaping out of the woods, yelling and screaming. I swear I must’ve jumped at least a foot in the air as did everybody else! He scared us half to death. Of course, needless to say, we didn’t get a wink of sleep that night, but in the morning, we all admitted that we had been pretty foolish to be afraid. It was a good lesson. The adults had a bit of fun at our expense, and we had learned that our minds are very good at playing tricks on us.
Many years later, I would learn this lesson again, although in a much more dramatic fashion. I had just enlisted in the Army and had been sent to Fort Jackson for basic training. One time, we were doing a night ruck march. This was one of those dark South Carolina nights. Visibility was nothing— there was not a single star in the sky for us to see by, and it had been humid during the day. The temperature dropped just enough that a low mist had come up. The darkness was almost complete. All we could see were very faint and indistinct shapes. As we marched down the path, our drill instructors took great delight in telling us to be on the lookout for potential ambushes: you were always on patrol and never to let your guard down.
All you could do was follow the person in front of you. Every dislodged pebble, every broken stick, every croak of a frog, rustle of leaves and grass out in the woods, was possibly the enemy.
To this day, I still cannot determine what happened, but our platoon was somehow split— half of us were going down one path and the other, going down another. We started hearing sounds. They sounded like footsteps in the woods. Visibility was nothing. Remember to keep quiet. Everybody was starting to get nervous and panicking because it seemed like something was approaching us, so we all dropped into a prone position on the side of the road and waited.
I don’t know who it was, who fired first— us— or them. But before I knew it, we were all exchanging fire in pitch darkness. The forest illuminated by the muzzle flashes of forty-five terrified recruits and countered by—the muzzle flashes of another forty-five equally terrified recruits. Fortunately, we were all carrying blanks, so no one was actually harmed in this inadvertent friendly fire incident.
I do remember that it took the drill sergeants a few minutes to get both groups of recruits calm enough to cease fire. Then they promptly proceeded to berate us over lack of trigger discipline, situational awareness and every other mistake we had made. Of course, afterward, they’d asked us just what the hell we thought we would be doing shooting blanks out in the middle of the woods?
I remember one of the recruits saying that we responded because we were scared. We thought we were being attacked. She did not get to live that down for the rest of boot. In hindsight, though, I believe that this taught us an excellent lesson: without the ability to see and to think logically, we allowed the irrational part of our brains to get the better of us.
With the lessons we had been taught, it seemed to be very easy for us to let those fears run wild, while training to fight the enemy. We soon saw everything as the enemy, especially in an environment that set us on edge. Had this ruck march been during the day, none of this would’ve happened. But at night, our rational minds could not contain the irrational fear that lurked in the primal part of our brains, and it was those fears that gave route to our irrational response.
Every man and woman has probably been in this position at one time, or another, caught between looking up in wonder at the dark and being caught out in it. It is the terror of the unknown, imagining the danger you are convinced lies just around every bush and tree just out of that comforting circle of light.
Just remember that having a fear of the dark is human, to succumb to that fear is also human, and —most essential— to rise above and conquer that fear is equally human.
By Erik Woessner
By Timothy Fredrikson
In 1961, my family journeyed from Charlottesville, VA, to Heidelberg, FRG, where my Father was assigned to USAREUR HQ, IG Branch. He had flown over several months earlier, so my Mother, my Grandmother, 2 of my Sisters, our family dachshund, & myself traveled (translate drove) from Charlottesville, to Fort Hamilton, NY … from where we traveled across the Atlantic Ocean aboard the USNS Simon Bolivar Buckner. The cross-ocean trip took 9 days, & we lucked out & had good weather for the entire time.
My Father met us in Bremerhaven, & the final leg of the trip was to Heidelberg, where we stayed in the BOQ until we found a place to live. There were no officers’ quarters available, so my Father chose to rent a home in Neckargemund, about 10 KM along the Neckar River from Heidelberg!!
The long trip from VA to NY, the journey across the Atlantic, & then moving on to “the economy” in Germany left me with so many amazing memories!! It is such things that have made me feel so lucky to be an Army Brat.
I boarded the USNS Buckner proudly wearing my “Davy Crockett coonskin cap”, which was my most prized possession. One day we went up on deck, & it was very windy. Sure enough, my coonskin cap blew off from my head, & landed in one of the lifeboats. Well, I was heartbroken. My mom did not want to bother any of the crew to recover the cap, so she came up with an alternative plan. She dragged me down to the Ship store, & offered to buy a brand new white “dixie cup” sailor’s hat for me. Well, it only took one second for me to say yes! Despite the fact that it was a Navy hat, I was on a ship, so I loved it … & my coonskin cap was forgotten. I would have hated to have been the sailor that next inspected that lifeboat, & saw/ the little furry creature curled up under the seat!! LOL!!
We all came up on deck as the Buckner was pulling into the dock, & there were hundreds of people awaiting on the quay. We had to wait for all of the soldiers to disembark, so while on deck, we were scanning the crowd for any sight of my Father. My oldest Sister (I have 3) thought she saw him among all of the crowd, climbed up on the gang rail & began to wave. The wave was accompanied by a foghorn loud “HEY DADDY”, followed by every male head in the dockside crowd looking upwards to find the source of that stentorian bellow! Thoroughly embarrassed, my Mom immediately pulled her down from the gang rail, & shushed her. When we finally disembarked, my Sister saw him walking towards us, & immediately ran to him, once again bellowing “HEY DADDY”!! My Father hugged her, & his first words to my Mom were … “I thought that was Susanne’s voice … but I think that every Father on the dock thought it was THEIR daughter!!” He also asked my Mom … “WHY is my Army son wearing that NAVY squid hat??”