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Steve Hansen: Teaching soldiers about dowsing during Vietnam

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Posted: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 12:00 am

Drought in California has brought the practice of dowsing, or “water-witching,” back into vogue.

The attempt to find water, gemstones, oil, metals, graves and underground tunnels with this method is nothing new. It may have had its origin in 15th-century Germany.

Tools of the trade involve anything from a Y-shaped branch clipped from a willow tree to L-shaped metal rods, which twist in the hands of the user. Sometimes a pendulum is employed.

Supposedly, “energies” from the desired discoveries transmit through the earth and cause a wooden branch to move downward, or in the case of two rods, point in the direction of the operator’s aspirations.

While my grandfather firmly believed in the technique for finding water in the foothills, my science-oriented father ridiculed the whole process as nothing more than superstition.

Personal experience for me with dowsing began in the Army. I had a week to go until my departure from active duty. It was the first part of the 1970s, and the Vietnam War was slowly winding down.

Maj. Hilborn approached and said it was my turn to teach a class for the troops.

“What do you want me to cover?” I enquired.

“I don’t care,” the major replied. “Just make it interesting.”

With a week to go, I thought I’d do something weird.

I knew some of my colleagues in the Marine First and Third Divisions were using dowsing to locate enemy tunnels and weapons caches. I also knew it was not the first time the military had engaged in this practice. Gen. Patton reportedly used dowsing to find new water wells to replace those destroyed by the Nazis. The practice also appeared in Russian Army manuals during the 1930s as a method for finding water in uninhabited areas.

So the next day, I found a couple of metal rods, bent them in the shape of an “L” and began my didactic presentation to the unit’s enlisted personnel.

Since I didn’t know much about the subject, the class didn’t last very long. I gave a brief history, talked about its usage in Vietnam, and demonstrated my rods with one in each hand. In a matter of moments, the tools began to point over a certain spot in the ground.

No one, including myself, knew why. In addition, no one cared enough to grab a shovel and find out.

Shortly thereafter, the major called me aside and asked with a stern look: “Lieutenant, are you for real? Is this a joke or what?”

I assured him with a straight face that it was no joke and that my subject matter was truly “serious.”

Suddenly, we both looked with amazement at the field where I had just conducted my class. There was the unit physician — holding my two divining rods — while the troops followed him around the open terrain in a snake-like procession! The major just stared in disbelief, rolled his eyes and walked away.

So now that you know my story, I’m sure you must be wondering: Does dowsing really work?

There are so many different versions of this practice that I find it difficult to accept the “energy emerging from the ground” theory. Perhaps its really a mental exercise, and the tools used are simply bridges from the mind into an invisible dimension where all things are connected — something Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious.”

I know that sounds bizarre, but people have been dowsing for hundreds of years, and there must be some kind of reward for their efforts.

But on the other hand, perhaps Dad was right. Maybe it’s just chance and delusional thinking. However, if people really and truly believe in the process, then who’s to say it can’t work for them?

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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