It's easy to remember that close call. The date coincides with National Pi Day, and as we all know, pi – or the Greek letter π – represents a mathematical constant that is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter and is approximately equal to 3.14159... or 3.14. And 3.14 can represent March 14, too, so that's why today is National Pi Day and why I can remember the day I almost bought the farm from a bomb fragment that was 10 to 12 inches in diameter, with a jagged circumference that could have ripped a mighty big hole through little me.
I was on patrol that day in the merry, merry land of South Vietnam, along with my Marine Corps recon teammates. At about 10:30 a.m., we came upon a risky looking spot with a waterhole and a 3-foot-wide, well-used trail.
I don't remember these details because of an excellent memory, but rather because I have a copy of the patrol report, which had been classified confidential but has since been declassified. (So, at ease, National Security Agency; all is fine.)
Anyway, our patrol leader – that would be Gunnery Sgt. Pony Monell, the best gunny to ever serve the Corps and our nation – sent our point man and deuce point to check out the possible danger area. Sure enough, they ran into a bad guy, who started to unsling what appeared to be an American carbine. Our point man took him out, and as we were retrieving the enemy soldier's equipment, his comrades showed up. Since it sounded like we were going to be out-manned and out-gunned, we quickly made our way up a ridgeline, just west of another ridge, and called for air support. In very short order, a pair of Marine Corps A-4 Skyhawk attack jets showed up on scene.
The two aircraft roared down out of the sky and screeched through the narrow mountain valley between the two ridges, first one jet and then the other. They appeared so close, it seemed as if I could reach out and grab them as we sat on that ridge. I cannot remember whether the Marine pilots dropped 250-pound bombs or 500-pounders, but the ridge shook, and the explosions felt enormously strong. I'd say they were the larger ordnance, because a big, smoking chunk of one impacted with a sickening thud right between me and my best friend, Gus Villanueva, the team's Navy corpsman. If the point of impact had been 15 inches further from his right, I'd have been a goner; 15 inches further from my left, and Gus would have been history.
We looked at the smoking hunk of iron and then looked at each other with eyes wide and mouths agape.
I had experienced a couple of close calls before. This one, however, was downright awe-inspiring – and flat-out scary, but what's a memorable overseas experience without some scary thrills and daring excitement?
Unique close calls followed during that year, sometimes crazy close. Two close ones occurred in one firefight, on the afternoon of Aug. 3, 1968. Yes, I have the patrol report from that one, too. In the course of the fight, enemy soldiers blasted off the butt of my M16 rifle and shot off the radio handset that had been clipped onto my left cartridge-belt suspender, just to the left of my heart. I think I made it through that afternoon without a single scratch.
If I was not a spiritual man before 1968, I certainly was after. I made it through that year with a lot of help from my fellow jarheads, with a little bit of my own gung-ho skills, and with a few miracles from a source beyond my realm of clear understanding, although I have my suspicions, my spiritual beliefs.
That brings me full circle back to π, which helps me appreciate 3.14 and March 14.
Now, I'm going to go eat some pie. I know it's National Pi Day, not National Pie Day, but I must chow down on plenty of pie this year, so that I can write expertly about pie come National Pie Day on Jan. 23, 2015.