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#659545 - 10/13/08 05:08 PM Absolute Zero  
Joined: Mar 2005
Posts: 3,639
Samuel Harris Offline
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Samuel Harris  Offline
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Joined: Mar 2005
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Pleasant Hill, Oregon
Absolute Zero
Copyright 2008 by Samuel Joseph Harris

The helicopter surged violently through fire and smoke. Lee managed to loosen his grip just long enough to loop his elbow around the skid bar. He watched his feet dangle above the trees. He was sure this was to be his last look at Vietnam.

Below, Lee could hear the pop, pop, pop of rifle fire. Each pop punctuated his face with a wince. As Lee surveyed the pandemonium below, he realized he could not hang on. Then he had an almost detached thought. “How fast does fear travel"?

He was now 1500 feet above the brown water of the Mekong Delta. The chopper listed and sputtered as it veered eastward above the waves. Phosphor was burning somewhere under the rotor and it was dripping dangerously close to his forearm like some obscene gooey acid.

It was time to panic but Lee resisted. Instead he began to appraise his scant chances. The pilot of the helicopter lay dead in the carnage below. Only Lee and the crew chief, who was screaming curses at the controls, were left aloft. A volley of shots from the tree tops drove more resignation into him. The pain in his arms and fingers was unbearable. He thought of letting go- getting it over with- but he couldn't do it.

Something was moving toward him now-something moving at the speed of thought. It was the beast. It was fear. It squeezed every cell. It clinched his fist and fixed his stare.

Lee saw it coming. Pop, pop, pop. Boom! The chopper pitched and wrenched his fist apart.
Lee was a free man.
"Oh no, Oh damn, Oh God Almighty! Free at last. Oh damn, I'm free at last"

Time is relative; and the relatively few last seconds of a person's life have been said to provide enough time to review a lifetime. Lee now saw how this could be. Below him in one grand tapestry lay the entire Mekong Delta valley. He could see the mountains, rice fields and the San pan's full sail on the water. By a stream, a little group of soldiers exchanged fire. In a muddy ravine, a toy helicopter lay crumpled in a heap.

Lee could see the whole picture as if he were viewing a Bruegel painting; and just like a painting, nothing was moving. It was the click of the shutter- time in deep freeze.

This must be what happens, thought Lee, when fear, like some psychological superconductor, accelerates the current of thought to the speed of light. The mind races and time stands still. It can only happen when a life is at absolute zero.

Lee tried to shift his focus to a fishing boat in the bay. He was drawn to the white sails and the graceful wake. His was the natural instinct of a doomed man to pursue a figure of tranquility in his last moments. But Lee's focus did not respond to the command of his will. Relative to the speed of his thought, Lee was motionless; not even his eyes were moving. Lee began to recall the recent past. This had all happened before.


Ten days before, in the dense coastal jungles above Saigon, Lee was marked as a dead man. He had received his death sentence when his commander announced that today was his rotation as "point man". In these jungles and with the known concentration of Viet Cong here, his fate was sealed. To draw point was to draw death. Lee noticed that no one that morning would meet his eyes.

Now alone on point, he suffered solitary terror. It was just a matter of time. When the shot split the air, Lee felt himself running. At full sprint he saw the skinny man in the black pajamas; saw the rifle held to his chin; saw the puff of smoke and the tiny blue flame; and finally, he saw the bullet!
"How could this be?"

Straining with all of his strength, he pushing through the air like it was a wall. He could see the tiny silver missile floating serenely over the sandbags. And was he really running? No. He was in the posture of one running but there was no motion. Fear had frozen the machinery of his life. His mind was like a visitor, free to survey what the ice had preserved.

Lee studied the picture before him. The focal point of the scene was the bullet. Behind the bullet were the intense fearful eyes of a Viet Cong soldier. Between the soldier and Lee's eyes lay a pile of sandbags long since reduced to a shapeless mass by monsoon rain and torrid heat. It was just above this mass that Lee watched the suspended bullet as if it were enchanted.
"So this is what it's like when hell freezes over", thought Lee.

He then began to tally his chances as coolly as an accountant tallies his ledger. He analyzed the trajectory, position and destination of the sniper's bullet. He calculated his own probable speed and direction. He calculated the position of his Platoon and its probable response. Then, very calmly, he came to a conclusion. The bullet would miss. He would live. The Viet Cong soldier would die.

At light speed, he shot the young Viet Kong a sympathetic glance. Knowing passed between them. The absurdity and tragedy of war was discussed. They forgave each other, and finally, with each man acknowledging his respective fate, they said good-bye.

Lee felt a little quake as the great glacial engine that had seized him began to melt. The sound of ice breaking grew into a horrendous crack! It was the rifle shot. Lee fell face down into the mud and listened for a moment to his own panting. Then covering his helmet with his hands, he prepared for a staccato of rifle fire as his platoon riddled the pajama-clad sniper with a week's worth of revenge and resentment.
Then, silence.
Someone lifted Lee up by the elbow. It was Stan, the platoon leader.
"Are you OK?"
Lee paused a moment to reflect on the fact that Stan could not possibly understand what he was about to say.
"I saw the bullet,” he muttered.
"No kidding", said Stan.


And now suspended in space above the brown water of the bay, Lee began to think about sailing. Perhaps when resignation is thorough, when hope, remorse and even fear become irrelevant, there is nothing left to contemplate except images evoking serenity.

Lee loved the freedom of the water. Some of his happiest times were spent aboard a little sloop as he navigated the island waters of San Juan before the unpopular war. As he thought about his tranquil boyhood sailing days, he could feel his focus shift.

The ice of fear was melting. Lee detected some possibility in the thaw. He might control it to some extent. This was a bittersweet revelation to him. Here, in the last fraction of his life, he would just begin to understand the elasticity of time and thought. He would accept his fate with courage and yet he would exert some control in his last moments. He would regulate his perception, and to some extent, his fate. He would navigate toward those serene white sails on the water.

And so, Lee melted a little cosmic ice and set his course for the fishing boat. Yes, it was possible. A move of a finger here, a tilt of the head there, and the sails grew closer. A bend of a leg, the curl of a shoulder...exhale. The ice turned to crystals, the crystals to mist. His body accelerated and the roar of the wind was deafening as he plunged toward the water. He grimaced and prepared to die. He would enter, he supposed, the Void. That is, he prepared to crash quickly into a great white nothingness.

But the transition was thunderous! Lee discovered that it is not an easy thing to shuffle off the mortal coil.
"This is not quick! This is pain. This is cold. I am drowning! This is not fair- to pass courageously through the Void only to be rewarded with pain and suffocation?"
Suddenly, his head bobbed to the surface. The San Pan was capsized. The sails were ripped and flattened on the water. An old Papa San fisherman was holding out an open hand. He was beside himself with excitement.
"A man has fallen from the sky", he stammered in Vietnamese. "He is here in the water beside my boat!"
More fishing boats gathered. Many had seen it. The white sails had saved Lee's life.


In the next few days aboard USS Hope, a hospital ship in the bay, Lee was something of a celebrity. He was known throughout the ward as "Delta Man", the man who fell from the sky. He was a lucky man they said. Some people of course didn't believe his story, but not a few others did, knowing from experience that in combat, extraordinary things happen every day.
Lee was a grateful man who never attempted to tell his whole story or try to persuade anyone that his experience involved anything more than a lucky plunge from the sky. What he found within himself, he kept to himself. He was content with the assurance that in moments of crisis or threat of death, eternity was available to slow the mortal clock and perhaps, point the way. He could never quite believe in the finality of death after that. Perhaps he was "Delta Man" after all, with powers and abilities not too far beyond those of mortal men.

Lee was grateful to be leaving the heat and hate of war. He was going home, and when he got there, he would go sailing.

The end

#1125135 - 03/09/17 01:06 PM Re: Absolute Zero [Re: Samuel Harris]  
Joined: Jun 2006
Posts: 7,712
Jim Colyer Offline
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Jim Colyer  Offline
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