Trees Don't Move
I send my four children a letter each month which includes a personal story from my days in the military. This is one of those stories.
When I was in the paratroops at Fort Bragg, my platoon was practicing a night patrol. The 44 men in the platoon were in a single file with about 10 feet between each man walking through the woods. It was very dark. Now obviously, an infantry soldier cannot go around shinning a flashlight at night when they are trying to sneak up on the enemy (even during training). And, we are talking about the late 1970s, so we didn’t have all the fancy night-vision equipment the soldiers have nowadays. So when we walked through the dark woods, we had to have a way to keep the soldier in front of us in sight so we could follow them. To do this, we had two “cat eyes” attached to an elastic band on our helmet. These “cat eyes” were luminescent pieces of tape about the size of your thumb nail. They had a bluish-green glow at night, and they were very hard to see, but you could see them from 10 or 15 feet away. So, that’s how each soldier kept track of the person in front of them, by looking for the faint “cat eyes” even though they couldn’t see the actual soldier.
Now each time the point man in the platoon stopped (which was often since we were navigating with just a map and compass, and it was dark), the rest of the platoon would stop and get down on one knee and face outwards with their weapon in case we were stopped. Our platoon leader (a lieutenant) was at the front of the platoon near the point man. I (the platoon sergeant at the time) was the next to last man in the line at the rear of the column. Whenever the platoon stopped, I would normally wait about 1 minute, and if we hadn’t started moving by then, I would start walking up the line of soldiers making sure they were alert and kneeling down with rifles pointing outward. Since there were 44 men in the platoon and we were 10 feet apart, the platoon was stretched out in single file for over a football field in length. It would sometimes take me several minutes to walk from the back of the platoon to the front.
I remember one time when we stopped, I was walking up towards the front correcting the soldiers as I went, “keep quiet”, “face outward”, “don’t get so far behind next time”, etc. Then I got to one of our privates about halfway up the line and knelt down beside him. I said, “Where’s Johnson?” (i.e. the soldier who was supposed to be next in line). The private pointed and said, he’s right there Sergeant Hartman. I looked where he was pointing, and I saw 2 very faint greenish-glows. I said, “That’s Johnson?” and the private said, “Yes, sergeant. He hasn’t moved in a while, but that’s him.” Since the “cat eyes” looked a little strange to me, I got up and walked over to the 2 “cat eyes”. I looked, and then I walked back to the private and I said, “That’s not Johnson. That’s a tree.”
You see, some types of moss that grows on trees can glow faintly when it’s very dark. The private had not been looking at the “cat eyes” on the back of Johnson’s helmet. He had been looking at 2 spots of moss on the back of a tree waiting for it to move. Johnson of course, had gotten up and moved several minutes previously when the lead part of the platoon moved. The private just hadn’t seen him move.
Note: In case you’re curious, I just made the private the point man for the back half of the platoon, and I told him which way to go. We caught up with the front half of our platoon in 15 or 20 minutes. No big deal.
Moral of the Story – Sometimes people are convinced something is true. Sometimes they are right, but sometimes they are wrong. The private was convinced he was looking at Johnson. Sometimes, regardless of how convinced other people are, you have to get up and check things out for yourself. Otherwise, you might find yourself waiting a long time for a tree to move.