The day I left it was raining and that was good because the wet pavement would cause my worn out front tire to last longer. I had several hundred miles to go to get to Cincinnati where I would report for induction into the Army. I had to correct the steering only a little bit compared to when the wheels were on dry road. I knew the tire was slipping along nicely, and I would make it as long as it kept raining. It rained all day.
I got there just in time to undergo an army physical and other mental evaluation. They were fairly relaxed about who they would take. I thought the fact I even got there qualified me. There were many of us like cattle in lines and we had on few clothes. When that part was over we were put in one room fully dressed. An army sergeant had a piece of paper for us to sign. He passed out paper to the first person in each row of desks. They took one and passed it back. Everyone got one. On the piece of paper there was a list of all the organizations the U.S. Government considered insurgent. The list was in fine print and it barely fit on one page. We were supposed to read the list carefully and then sign our name at the bottom where it said we solemnly swore we were not an active member or ever had been an active member of any of the groups listed.
The sergeant was sitting silently at a desk in the front of the room looking at us. Some people could read faster than others could, and without crowding they handed the paper to him. I read the list and was overwhelmed by the thought that if I said I belonged to one of those groups then I wouldn’t have to go in the army. I wondered, could it be that easy? I found the worst group, the most hateful group on that list. I walked up to the sergeant’s desk and said politely that I wasn’t going to sign because maybe I belonged to one of those groups. He smiled, like he knew all about my ideas and he had a procedure for me. He told me to go wait over there until everyone else had signed or not signed. I was the only one in the room who didn’t sign. He showed me into another room and he told me to wait there. He said Army Intelligence wanted to talk with me and they would be awhile because they were on the next floor up.
Finally two people came in and they were both wearing suits. They weren’t exactly twins but they were dressed the same and physically they were the same. I suppose they were from Army Intelligence. They never said who they were representing. They didn’t even introduce themselves. One of them said it was the end of the day on Friday and they were going home in five minutes. Apparently, they didn’t have time to properly interrogate me. They said the government was obligated to provide me with accommodations until Monday morning. They said they had meal and housing vouchers that were good at local hotels. I said I have my own accommodations, and thanked them.
I spent that weekend in the woods on the back of Peterloon Farm. I drove off the road down a tractor road to a clearing where farmers mixed fertilizer and loaded grain onto trucks. All their work was done weeks ago. I didn’t see anyone the whole time I was there. I didn’t want to go home because there was so much up in the air and I didn’t have any reasons for doing what I was doing.
There were large clumps of orchard grass everywhere and a small stray hunting dog passed through with his nose in the long grass smelling for something. The dog seemed as if it was too busy to notice me. I named that dog Freeman. It took me awhile to figure out what Freeman was looking for in the long grass. It wasn’t rabbits. It was bugs. The dog was eating bugs it found in the grass. I offered Freeman some of my food. He ate it, but not in a voracious way. Freeman would just as soon eat bugs but he wasn’t too proud to eat my food. Freeman was in and out of that clearing all weekend. He always smelled for bugs to eat and he seldom looked at me directly. I figured there were many tasty bugs in the grass under my car so after awhile I moved it over a few yards. I last saw Freeman Sunday morning. I suppose he left as busily as he came. He probably ended up in some humane shelter getting decompressed to death. Even if he were adopted by a human he would have just tolerated them and at the first opportunity he would have left to go look for bugs in the long grass. Freeman preferred live bugs, and they weren’t sold in stores anywhere.
Monday morning I cleaned myself up, and went downtown to the Federal building to see those two people from Army Intelligence. When I met them we never sat down. I quickly explained that I didn’t want to sign that piece of paper with the list of all the groups that the Government said were insurgent, because then I would be swearing that I never belonged to any of those groups when that might not be the case. I said to them that if I belonged to…and I named the hateful group I had seen on the list the Friday before…and I signed your list then that would be a crime. I said there was nothing illegal about belonging to such a group. I said if they didn’t want me in their loving military machine that was their prerogative, but I wasn’t going to possibly lie about it. They looked at each other when I named the hateful group, but when I was finished talking one of the two people said signing the list was just a formality. I wouldn’t have to sign.
I don’t remember exactly how many days it took. In short order the sequence of events were that I put all my things away at home, gave my lame car back to my father, hugged and kissed whoever was there good bye, and reported for induction into the U.S. Army.
Everyone in the group was told to stand and raise their right hand, and repeat after somebody who had been there a long time. He read something someone thought was significant. It reminded me of a song and dance we did in grade school called the Hokey Pokey. Everyone in the group danced what they sang and they sang, “Put your right hand in. Put your right hand out. Put your right hand in and shake it all about. You do the Hokey Pokey and turn your self around. That’s what it’s all about.” The song and dance repeated itself over and over again naming different appendages of the body. I couldn’t help thinking here are a bunch of grown people who were still trying to learn what it is all about.
We were put on a bus headed for Fort Knox a hundred miles away. Fort Knox was well known in military circles as the place where people learned to drive tanks. I didn’t know this until that day, but I did know from movies that tons of gold were kept there. On the bus going to Fort Knox I was sorry I flunked economics where we talked mostly about what makes the world go around. I wondered what the U.S. Government was doing with all that gold.
Fort Knox was a big place. We were going there for a few days of orientation. From there we would be split up and be re-assigned to basic training units at other Army bases.
On the way there the bus stopped at a roadside restaurant. The Army would always feed us well, especially in a war zone. There were so many Armies in history that lost because of cold and hunger. It was a point of pride that we be fed well. If we lost it wasn’t going to be because we weren’t fed. I got plenty of food the next year, nine months, and nine days. After that I got “early out.” When I came back from Vietnam I was discharged rather than re-assigned for three months.
At the restaurant there was a Jukebox. We were in that place for an hour. People from our bus put so many coins in the slot that the jukebox probably played most of the next day. The Army didn’t pay for the music.
At Army orientation we learned about living in the Army. A new second lieutenant was assigned to our group. We had to clean the barracks every day after breakfast, but one day it was a major cleaning. I was cleaning the latrine. I was scrubbing out a urinal with a long handled brush made for that purpose. The urinal was cast iron with a white porcelain finish. It was four or five feet long with one drain in the middle. There was some reason why the drain cover had to be removed according to the second lieutenant. I didn’t have anything to grab it with and said so. He said, “Use your fingers. It is only piss.” The idea of touching an object covered with other people’s urine seemed to go against common sense, but I was in the army now where common sense was not relevant. The urinal drain cover I was looking at was covered with fresh urine. There probably wasn’t any bacteria on it yet. I reached down with my bare hands, removed it, washed my hands, and didn’t die. About an army at another time someone said, “Ours is not to reason why. Ours is to do and die. Into the valley of death road the five-hundred.”
When I was at orientation we were given written tests. After that we talked to a person who was a permanent military man. He filled in the blank spaces on a form. He asked me where I would like to go overseas. I said I would like to go to Italy. He was amused like I thought he was a travel agent. This was a ridiculous exercise and a game. In so many words he said there were about two “GI’s” in Italy (the expression GI was a slang expression referring to one U.S. Army soldier and it literally meant Government Issue). I didn’t want to be stuck somewhere polishing boots all day and playing soldier. I said just put me down for Vietnam. If there was going to be a game it never got started. I was aware that just about everyone around me was going to do a “tour of duty” in Vietnam. A tour of duty was one year. Many people over there would mark off the days. The expression “I’m short” meant there weren’t many of the 365 days left. When a person got short they were very careful not to take any unnecessary risks, but still people would get killed who had only several days left.
Because I signed up for Vietnam I was assigned to a Chinook helicopter outfit that was being formed at Fort Benning, Georgia. It was part of the Vietnam military buildup. Otherwise, I would have probably been individually “deployed” to replace someone that had either gone home on his own two feet, or had been killed. The assignment I eventually got was a safe one although there were still many bullets whizzing around the country. Considering my assignments it was as if the only one doing the planning was me. Still, I have never been to Italy.
When I left Fort Knox we were in a bus going to Fort Brag in North Carolina where we went through basic training. On the way there we stopped at a bus station in Knoxville, Tennessee. We had a few hours to wait. Several of us went out of the bus terminal to have a cold beer. It didn’t seem like there were places of any kind open around there. It wasn’t that late but it was dark. We were standing on a corner looking lost and here comes a man out of the night. We were in our Army dress uniforms or “class A’s” as they are called in the Army. He might have guessed that we were from another city going to another city. Someone asked him if there was a bar nearby. He turned this way and that way to think what was down each street, and then he points down one street and says there is a bar in that direction. Sure enough, less than half a block down one poorly lit side street there was a place we would never have seen had he not told us. It had a varnished wood door with a tiny window at eye level. The bar tender hurriedly took a poster board sign off the bar when we opened the door. We sat in a booth. A woman asked us what we wanted and we said four beers. The beers came and we paid for them. As we were drinking the beers and talking I saw a horrified look on the face of one of the two people sitting across from me in the booth. He was looking behind me. When I turned around to see what he was looking at I saw two girls embracing and kissing passionately. They were sitting in the booth next to ours. We had asked the man on the street where a bar was and we didn’t specify what kind of bar. The bar he pointed to and the one we were in was for people who rather get sexual with members of their own sex. People went there to meet people who felt the same way about sex as they did, or they went there with people who already felt that way. We took a few more drinks of our beer and left. That is probably what the people in the bar wanted us to do, and it was what we wanted to do.
When we got to Fort Bragg the drill sergeants were waiting for us. It was in the wee hours of the morning, but that didn’t slow them down one bit. We were half-asleep. Our welcoming committee was three people who the Army refers to as drill instructors. They were assigned to our unit for the duration of our U.S. Army basic training. The moment the bus door opened I could here the loud shrill voices of the drill instructors. “You better hurry up and get off my bus trainee.” A trainee was the lowest form of life in the Army. The drill instructors were career people or “lifers” as we later called them. They were also experienced infantrymen. I didn’t hear that from them. They weren’t particularly concerned what we knew about them. We only had to know they were drill instructors (DI’s), and we were trainees. The Army wanted us to know about the army. The Army’s instructors didn’t talk about anything, but army related subjects. They were good instructors about Army life because they ate, breathed, slept, and drank the Army. They were the U.S. Army through and through.
When we got off the bus we had to get our duffel bags from the luggage compartment, and all the time the three DI’s were loudly telling us to line up.
One DI kept repeating that we should get our head out of our duffel bag. A duffel bag was a canvas bag four feet long and sixteen inches wide with an opening at one end. In theory when a soldier moved from one assignment to another everything he had could be put in his duffel bag. The one DI who kept telling everyone to get their head out of their duffel bag was saying it in such a way that it was obvious he was substituting the words duffel bag for a slang expression denoting a person’s anal orifice. DI’s weren’t allowed to use profane language.
The Army wasn’t able to hold the idea that a person be limited to a duffel bag. “Whole baggage” developed. That is a collection of a person’s “personal effects”. The thought someone has “personal effects” has to be one of the Army’s best and most thought provoking ideas.
Eating meals was the same as getting off the bus. The DI’s would walk up and down the center aisle telling everyone, “you better get out of my mess hall.” Once a DI leaned over close to the person sitting on the end and started barking at him. The DI kept yelling at him to get out of “my mess hall” and to hurry up and eat. Finally the person was so flustered he couldn’t eat. He got up with the tray of food to leave. The DI pounced on that opportunity, “You don’t like my food trainee?” You had better sit down and eat my food trainee.” Then the confused boy sat down to eat again and the DI stood right over him and yelled at the person to hurry up, eat and “get out of my mess hall”. Would the boy’s mother be that way? I never sat in an aisle seat.
A mess hall was what the army named a building where everyone ate. The idea was to eat and get out since more people had to eat there than there were seats. Nobody had a leisurely meal. The DI made sure everyone got that message in the first few days. Outside the mess hall we formed two lines in front of two sets of parallel bars. There were about twenty bars on each set. A person had to go hand over hand through them before they went in the mess hall. If they dropped off before the last bar they had to go to the back of the line and try again. Few people dropped off. Inside the mess hall we took a metal tray and as we moved along, people behind a counter would put serving spoons of food on the tray.
When I had to work in the kitchen (KP) the mess sergeant told me to pour five gallons of fresh milk down a drain. I did it for the same reason I picked up the urinal drain cover. After several days that milk was still on my mind. Very little made sense to me, but I didn’t think that was something that would make sense to anyone. I asked someone who knew much more about the Army than I did, why would the sergeant do such a thing? He said our company mess hall was allocated a certain number of gallons of milk per day, and if all the milk was not used the allocation would be reduced. To keep our company’s allocation the same the sergeant had to do something to get rid of the milk. He said the sergeant didn’t do the deed, I did. The sergeant gave what amounted to an order, but I was the one who actually poured the milk down the drain. Considering I was a trainee it was less punishable, but it was punishable. The Army had a system where a lower ranking person could file charges against a higher-ranking person, but they didn’t have a witness relocation program. I wonder if a trainee ever had the nerve to write up that sergeant for ordering him to throw away food. Sometimes at home we would not finish all our milk at the table and my father would get upset and talk about how people were starving in other places in the world. Now, there I was far away from home dumping 5-gallons of milk down a drain, and I wanted to tell my superior officer about all the starving people in the world.
Every day at basic training we had to do physical training (PT). Approximately 120 persons in our company would join other companies that made up a battalion, and toward the end of our training we would compete with other battalions. The group with the highest score would win. Before we went into that competition one DI who always led us in PT exercises told us that we were going to learn which group was the most physically fit. He said the scores would go up to Division Headquarters. He said, “Men, I want you to be honest, but there is nothing wrong with a good plan.” The army was his life. He had an insignia on his starched field uniform that indicated he was “Airborne”. That designation meant he was considered to be hard core Army and one of the best soldiers the Army had. The only thing more prestigious to a soldier than being Airborne was to be in the Special Forces, which was airborne training and much more.
It wasn’t easy to get in an airborne unit. One day while standing in formation we were told that anyone who wanted to try out for Airborne should “fall out” which meant go stand over there. We marched to the airborne field. About twenty people wanted to try out and I was one of them. We stood very seriously at attention and looked straight ahead. An officer of captain’s rank asked each person why they wanted to be Airborne. Most people said in one way or another that they wanted to be a man. Airborne soldiers were trained as paratroopers. That meant they jumped out of airplanes with parachutes. Surely that meant something. When he asked me I said, “It is something I have never tried before, sir.” He stood there silently for what seemed like a long time. I kept my eyes straight ahead never looking directly at him. Finally he said, “Give me six”. That meant right away I was supposed to get down in the “prone position” and do six push-ups. I did it while he moved on down the line. I didn’t get accepted into an airborne unit after basic training.
When we were on the PT field the Airborne DI led us through 30 minutes of hand to hand combat training each day. It was karate with some additional pointers. One was how to kill a person quickly by striking them in the throat. Toward the end of our training or “cycle” The DI said, “Now men, don’t go into town and jump up on a bar table. You know just about enough of this to get tore up.”
Sometimes in the afternoon we would see training films on various subjects and give written answers to written questions. One question was to select the animal we would least mind seeing killed. I don’t remember all the choices listed, but I do remember that I selected the goat. That must have been a popular answer a long time before that, because later we were shown a training film about nerve gas. A goat got gassed to death. It was kind of like a short movie I saw named Godzilla meets Bambi (Godzilla is a green monster and Bambi is a newborn deer). In this movie Bambi is an animated fawn contentedly nibbling on clover grass while music plays. After all the credits roll up, and after it names the people who produced the producer, Bambi is there alone grazing. In a moment there is a great crescendo of music. A big green foot with claws and scales comes down hard and squashes Bambi. Only Bambi’s four little black hooves are seen at the four corners of Godzilla’s huge foot. The movie is over. That movie is very much like this training film except the training film has no music. The goat is tethered to a rope, grazing. A puff of smoke indicates nerve gas has been released. A gentle breeze carries it over to where the goat is grazing. The goat raises its head quickly, sniffs the air, drops, twitches spastically, and is dead.
In the early morning we would wake up when it was still dark. Outside there were speakers on poles and a bugle tune would wake us up. It was always the same tune. It went back many years. It was named reveille. We would make our beds, go outside, and stand in formation. The three DI’s would be there. We would be dismissed for breakfast. By then we had learned to wolf down our food in silence. Afterward we did whatever cleaning the barracks needed. At an exact time we went back outside, and stood in formation. A second lieutenant stood in the background. A DI was in front of the company formation. At one end of each row a platoon leader briskly reported that everyone in the platoon was present or accounted for. Then the drill sergeant or DI in front would say that anyone going on sick call should fall out. Going on sick call meant going to the infirmary. There was one person who went to sick call every time. The right to go on sick call was probably the only right a trainee had. Army policy was that no one could be kept from going on sick call. A person who went on sick call would miss a good part of the morning exercises. If that happened often enough they would be “recycled” which was like flunking a grade in school. It was possible a person could spend their whole Army career in basic training. This person was a draftee well briefed on how to get out of the Army.
One day as we were getting into formation I asked him why he went on sick call all the time. He wouldn’t talk to me. It was like I was talking to a wall. Then later that day the Airborne DI pulled me aside in an empty barracks. He asked me what I said to this individual and what that person said back to me. The DI was standing extremely close to me like drill sergeants often do when they are talking to one person. I looked down to see how far apart our shoes were. He said in a stern army voice, “What are you looking at trainee”, and he jabbed me in the stomach. Soon after that the person who went on sick call every day filed charges against the same DI for hitting him. Apparently, the boy’s congressman got involved. The battalion commander who was a major in rank told our company commander who was a first lieutenant to have everyone in our company file through his office in the “orderly room” and for him to ask each person if that sergeant ever hit them. If it was found the sergeant hit others then that would support the charge. The drill sergeant could be “busted” in rank from E-7 to E-6. If that happened he would have a loss in pay and his career would take a step backward.
As the line fed into the orderly room there was an outer room where the sergeant was sitting. When he saw me he said something intimidating. I didn’t even look at him or acknowledge him. When I went into the company commander’s office he told me to shut the door like he had told everyone else. I closed the door, turned around, and stood at attention. I said, “Sir, Sergeant so-and-so probably eats snakes for breakfast, but he is not a brutal man”. That may or may not have been factually true, but it was my narrow opinion. Other people said the lieutenant went to the Army college at West Point. He leaned back in his chair and said I should get a field jacket that fit better than the one I was wearing. He said he was looking for a clerk typist. He said he would send me to clerk typist school after basic training. At first I didn’t know what to say, but I thanked him. Then I said being a clerk typist and spending my time in the Army behind a desk in North Carolina wasn’t my cup of tea. I was in his office longer than most people were, and the sergeant must have thought I was singing like a canary. When I went back outside he was looking glumly downward like it was all over.
Later, I wondered why the lieutenant had offered me a job. It was doubtful he offered everyone a job. I wondered if the sergeant had told him I was a person who could incriminate him. I never said the sergeant didn’t hit me. I simply said he was not a brutal man and that he was RA Army. RA means a person chooses to be in the Army. They volunteered to be in the Army. Soon after that the person who made the charge and went on sick call everyday was given an undesirable discharge. The sergeant stayed at E-7. It was a happy ending for everybody.
After breakfast and before formation we straightened up the barracks. If we were done cleaning there might be a few moments to talk with other people, write letters, or read. The girl who I had met at a dance in boarding school would write occasionally and say what was happening in her life and ask me about mine. She sent me a photograph of her sitting cross-legged on a rock wall. I put that picture on the inside of my locker door. In the Army we each had a steel locker like the ones in gymnasiums. The door of my locker was opened and another person walked past. He looked at the picture and asked me who it was. I said it was a girl I know and he insisted that it was my sister. He was doing basic training to become a National Guardsman. We didn’t take the National Guard people very seriously and he was no exception. GI’s in the Army said the National Guardsmen were “weekend warriors”. After basic training they would go home and meet together periodically on the weekend.
Everyone had metal tags around their neck called “Dog tags”. The tags had our name, blood type, religion, and our serial number. Our serial number had a prefix of RA, NG, or US. RA meant a person was a volunteer, US meant draftee, and NG meant National Guardsman. My serial number was US51798734. They told us in basic training, that if we were captured by the enemy according to the Geneva Convention we were only obligated to tell the enemy our name, rank, and serial number. We didn’t have to tell them our blood type or our religion. I suppose they could figure that out for themselves. It must have been quite a convention.
Then the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) came up with the idea that no rifle bullet could be bigger than 7.62 millimeters in diameter. No one could put a hole in someone bigger than 7.62 millimeters with a hand held rifle. Otherwise it was a violation of a signed agreement. The other side had AK-47’s that used ammunition that was 7.62 millimeters. They designed a rifle that shot a bullet that was to the nearest 100th of a millimeter of the legal limit. We had the M-16, which fired a .223 caliber bullet, which is the equivalent of a 5.56-millimeter bullet. The bullet had a big charge behind it so it traveled at a much higher velocity than any other bullet. People who said they know about such things said the higher velocity bullet makes a bigger hole in someone than anybody else’s legal military rifle. They also said the M-16 rifle bullet starts to tumble after a 100 yards of travel. If a high velocity bullet going sideways hits a person, it will really open them up. The people who designed the M-16 figured a way to make a bigger hole than the law allows. They probably got a raise and a pat on the back, and felt so clever as they drove home from work in rush hour traffic.
I was told there were a few infantrymen in Vietnam whose weapon of choice was the Thompson Sub Machine Gun. I don’t know where they ever found that firearm, but there were plenty of .45 caliber cartridges around since the .45 caliber pistol was the U.S. Government standard issue sidearm for officers. The Thompson Sub Machine Gun shot.45 caliber bullets. That machine gun was often shown on American television being fired by gangsters from fast moving cars. The Thompson Sub Machine Gun was designed more than fifty years before the Vietnam War. A person could almost see the bullet traveling out the end of the barrel it was so slow. But when it hit something that is all she wrote.
That weapon didn’t conform to any international agreement, but some people had it anyway. I guess they figured when you’re dead, your dead. Who cares what size the hole is?
We had one hour of instruction in the afternoon about sexually transmitted disease or venereal disease. At that time the most common type of venereal disease was called gonorrhea. The slang word for it was “clap”. Someone spoke and answered questions. A group of us were sitting in folding chairs. He said that we would know if we had gonorrhea when we went to urinate. He said we would want to rip the pipes off the wall because it would hurt so much. He said a male knows right away when they have gonorrhea but a female doesn’t. He asked if anybody knew why? He called on somebody with a raised hand and that person answered in street language that women do not urinate from the same place where they have sexual intercourse. The sergeant said that was correct. He said the beginning stages of gonorrhea in females were asymptotic. He explained that men know they have gonorrhea within 24 hours of their infection, but several weeks might go by before a female even thinks she has the disease. In the later stages he said a female would have pus like discharge from her vagina that might be confused for a light pus like discharge that is part of her normal bodily function. A woman might not seek medical attention for weeks and if she is a prostitute, during that time she could infect dozens of males.
Much later I was in a college freshman health class. I repeated what the sergeant said. It was the teacher who assigned me to do a presentation in front of the class on venereal disease. We all had to do a presentation on something the teacher assigned. The health course was mandatory.
During my presentation I looked over at the teacher and her face was buried in her hands. I think she just wanted me to singsong facts and figures from the freshman 101-text book. There were the faces of girls and boys staring at me wide eyed. I didn’t want to be different from them, but I was.
I added one thing the sergeant didn’t say. I said the University health clinic would treat a student for venereal disease but the treatment of that disease became part of their permanent record. I said the public health center downtown would treat them without asking any questions, and it was free. When I looked over at the teacher she was cringing. I don’t remember how I knew that because I never had gonorrhea when I was at the University. Several weeks later I asked a friend to “withdraw” me from all my classes because I unexpectedly and suddenly went to jail for 90 days. When he went to tell my health class teacher he wrote me that she disavowed I was ever in her class, or that she had any knowledge of me. He wrote that her reaction was “far out”, which was his way of saying how he thought it was amazing. When I read his letter I also thought it was far out.
There was one huge individual who for one reason or another wanted to beat me up. I didn’t think I could prevent him from beating me up. I tried to move away from him, but he and another person who was encouraging him followed me. Finally, I picked up a three foot broken board that had a sharp point. I remembered a similar situation in a book. I said he should make sure I didn’t stick him in the eye. I said besides blinding him it would ruin his supper. He left me alone and several weeks later I heard he was absent without leave (AWOL), and they gave him an undesirable discharge from the Army.
I would never have stuck him in the eye with the stick. I learned later how foolish it was for me to produce that stick if I wasn’t capable of carrying through with my threat. If he picked up another sharp stick then where would I be? A Military Police (MP) person told me they always carry a loaded side arm. He said they are instructed never to take the pistol out of its holster as a threat. If they draw their pistol as a threat and the other person draws a pistol then where would they be? A split second of indecision might get them killed. He said they are taught to resolve in their mind beforehand, if they take their pistol out of its holster be prepared to use it.
One of the drill instructors was a very colorful person. He had a belly that stuck out on one side and a larger than average posterior that stuck out on the other side. That is the way his body shape was. He was very fit. He could march long distances without slowing down. He could probably march circles around us. He was often the sergeant that led us out in the morning on long marches. One time we were all standing in formation. He was in front facing us, and he said we all looked like we were from the “house of David”. He wanted us to shave better.
When we marched to the rifle range it was five miles away. That was a long march in the U.S. Army. I wondered about a time when an army marched thousands of miles. In History books it is called the “long march”. It would be interesting to hear about it from one of the people who were there. The person who led the long march, and later ruled that part of the world said, “power comes from the barrel of a gun.” That statement scared people on this side of the bellicose world.
On the rifle range we used the M-14 rifle, which was the standard issue before the M-16. It shot a 7.62 bullet called the NATO round. We were taught how to take it apart and put it back together. I was reminded of a poem about the naming of parts. It says when the person in the poem was learning the parts of his rifle he saw a butterfly. I looked around, but did not see any butterflies. I learned what the receiver group was and other parts.
One anticipated event of basic training was “bivouac”. It was the Army’s version of a camping trip. The idea was that we learn to live out of tents and eat out in the “field”. The cooks were trainees guided by people who had been in the army a long time. They knew how everything worked.
The Army had an ingenious device that could bring a 30-gallon container of water to a rolling boil in a matter of minutes. It fastened to the side of a garbage can like an outboard motor. It had two six-inch pipes that went into the water. The pipes were connected at the bottom of the can in a shape that resembled a doughnut lying flat. One of the six-inch pipes coming up out of the water was the chimney. It extended five or six feet into the air. The other six-inch pipe extended a short distance above the water. It had a bracket over the open end of the pipe that held a one-gallon gasoline tank. When a small petcock valve was turned gasoline would drip down into the pipe. It would splash on a cast iron grate near the bottom of the pipe. After several drips a person would drop a lit match into the pipe. The gasoline would be ignited on the grate. The heat would travel around the doughnut shaped configuration at the bottom of the can and exhaust up the other pipe. It was a large-scale version of an electric immersion heater. I doubt it was UL listed, but it sure got water to boil in a hurry.
There were several of those cans in a row on our bivouac. After we ate, people would wash their metal food tray in hot water. There were long handled scrub brushes beside each can.
The cans were interesting also. In the Army they are mostly used as garbage cans and are called GI cans. They are different from the metal garbage cans consumers usually buy. A GI can is made from heavier gage galvanized steel and it has a riveted steel reinforcement on the bottom and top edges. It cost more than the average garbage can. I recently bought one in a very complete hardware store. My wife doesn’t like it because it is heavy even when it is empty. I carry out the garbage.
Bivouac lasted for two days and one night. We had two man tents and the person I shared a tent with was someone from Cincinnati who was inducted in the same ceremony as me. We went different ways after basic training, but during the time we were in the Army together he and I were friends. We talked for a long time before we went to sleep. He was telling me about his family and at one point he mentioned where his brother worked. It was the chemical plant my mother’s stepfather owned and ran. The company had for its name my mother’s stepfather’s last name. I told him how I knew the person the company was named after. We talked a little while longer, and went to sleep. There was a difference in our past, and it had little effect. When I was further along in the Army there was a person who was a biker from California or that is what he aspired to be. He often talked about his “hog” which is an expression bikers use to say motorcycle. In the Army he was just like us and we were just like him. Everyone dressed the same, had the same haircut, and did everything the same. There was no difference between any of us. Rank was based solely on ability.
My next assignment was at Fort Dix in New Jersey. In the last week of basic training we all stood in formation and the drill sergeant passed out pieces of paper that were our orders. Each person’s piece of paper showed what their “advanced individual training” (AIT) would be, and where they were to go to get that training. Our AIT assignment spelled out what MOS we would have. Everyone had a MOS. My MOS was 36K20. Any letter-number designation that ended with K20 was an infantry MOS, and I found out the 36 meant I was to be trained as a “field wireman”. At first I thought I was going to blow up many things, but a field wireman is someone who establishes ground telephone communication. Every Army unit or company has a list of all the MOS’s they are supposed to have. The company I was eventually assigned to had slots for two 36K20’s.
It was the middle of winter at fort Dix. Everyone in our company was a 36K20 MOS trainee. I learned all about the field telephone, setting up “nets”, and how to operate the field switchboard. I also learned how to climb telephone poles in the “pole orchard”. We had spikes on our feet called “climbers”. If anyone hesitated to climb the telephone pole one of the sergeants teaching us would threaten to go up the pole with that person hanging by the collar of their jacket. The sergeant said the hesitant person could either climb down the pole, or be dropped. I never saw anyone going up the pole hanging from a sergeant, and I never saw anyone dropped.
An exercise we had to do involved living out in the woods and stringing wires all over the place. All wires led to a switchboard so people at any two telephones could have the wires from those phones connected by the switchboard operator. It snowed the entire night. Many of the trees were conifers. The tree branches hung down with the weight of the snow. The snow crunched under my feet, and I could hear it falling. The bright moonlight made it pretty to see. Everyone talked quietly even the sergeants. No one said we had to talk quietly. It was as if we were trespassing on someone else’s land, and everyone knew it without being told.
Back at the company area we ate at a huge mess hall called the “big duce”. Several thousand people ate at the big duce. We had to stand in line and wait to eat. We filed through a small room sixteen by 24-feet. It kept cold air from blowing into the mess hall. We would stamp snow off our feet when we got in there.
Five or six people from another barracks were always together. Each time they walked defiantly to the front of the line. Someone said they were left from a training cycle completed long ago. The army ignored them. They had one floor of a barracks all to themselves. The only thing they did in the Army was eat three meals a day. If they were as defiant about everything as they were about eating then they were trying to butt heads with the Army. They seemed angry and militant in their own way. What they probably wanted was to be discharged as undesirables. Then they could return to their street ways. What the Army probably wanted was for them to be so bored they would be absent without leave (AWOL). Then there would be some crime against them. They were alone in the world. Their strength was from each other. As far as they were concerned acting individually would be like letting go of a flotation device in the water.
On a cold day our squad leader complained loudly as they walked through the little room in the mess hall. One of them, the smallest and probably youngest one, turned to him and said what’s it to you dog face. Our squad leader who was built like a fireplug commenced to fight with him. The people in his group continued into the main mess hall area leaving him behind. They didn’t stay to help their friend who was in the middle of a furious fight. If they joined him it would have started a brawl, and they were outnumbered twenty to one. Others broke up the fight, and when they did he did not want anybody to touch him like a wild animal fighting for its life. He went outside and probably cried. After that day I didn’t see him or his friends any more. They stood in line or went AWOL.
When we finished our AIT training we were given orders that said where we went next. My orders said I was to report to the 242 Assault Support Helicopter (ASH) Company at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia. The Army provided transportation and I flew down there in a commercial airline. The 242 ASH Company was a Chinook helicopter outfit. It was being formed as part of the Vietnam build up and as soon as we were complete the Army was going to send the entire unit to Vietnam. There was no one else from Fort Dix who went there with me but another 36K20 person was assigned to the 242 ASH company. He had been trained somewhere else. He was the biker from California. We worked together, drank together, and shared other routines the rest of the time I was in the Army.
Eventually our unit was assigned to the 9th aviation battalion, 1st aviation brigade in Vietnam. We would support the 25th Infantry Division and be located at their base camp at Cu Chi. The Chinook helicopter had tandem rotors. It was primarily used for sling loading artillery pieces and cargo nets. Also they were used to haul cargo on board. It was a big helicopter. Big enough to carry a jeep and a trailer and have extra room.
As the unit was being formed at Fort Benning we played Army much of the time. We marched around, shined our boots, and kept our beds and “foot locker” “squared away”. A footlocker was a wood box with a hinged top, located at the foot of our bed. Squared away meant something was neat and tidy.
Our company area was not far from the center of Fort Benning where there was a PX and a movie house. A PX, or Post Exchange, was a general store, and a movie house was a theatre where movies were shown. I saw many movies and went to the PX often enough to memorize where things were located.
One night I came back late from a movie. The lights were out in our barracks, but they hadn’t been out for long. When I sat down in the dark the legs on one end of my bed folded up and it collapsed. When it went down it pulled a string, and a water bomb on the ceiling over my bed was released. I got wet and everyone woke up. There were about 30 people on our floor in the barracks. One person was quick to say he was the one who did it. He and everyone had a laugh. I fixed my bed up. The lights went off, but I stayed awake seething inside. About four hours later I got up and carried a GI can down into the latrine. I filled it half full of water. About that time in comes the biker from California to urinate. He was mostly still asleep. I asked him to get one side of the can, and help me carry it into the main room. He and I lifted the can. He was still half-asleep, and grabbed the other side as if carrying twenty gallons of water at 2 in the morning was something I did every day. We set the can down near the person’s bed, who had rigged up the water bomb. I waited for the biker to get back in bed. As he got over to his bed he looked back at me like for the first time he wondered what I was doing. I motioned for him to get in bed.
I’ll never forget the sight. It was a hot Georgia night. This person was sleeping on his back with his mouth open. He was on top of his bed without any covers wearing only underwear. His arms were over his head. I lifted the can up, and I set it down gently on its side right between his legs. I saw this great wave of cold water travel up over his body, slap under his chin, and fill his mouth. Then he woke up and rolled the can off him. It made a lot of noise. Everyone else woke up also, and someone turned on the main lights. I stepped back into the aisle and he came out looking wet, dazed, and confused. We stood there facing each other. I asked him calmly what on earth was the matter, and I asked him if he wanted to tango. He then turned away, and went back to his bed. Everyone else did also, and the lights went off. The next day no disciplinary action was taken. One person who was not there unofficially said something.
I went home for a short time. The Army called that a “leave” and everyone got one in our unit before we all shipped out to Vietnam. We went on leave at different times. We had to get home on our own steam. We weren’t supposed to hitchhike in an Army uniform. I took a bus a short way out of Columbus, Georgia and proceeded to hitchhike the rest of the way home in my class A dress uniform. I made it home faster than if I had taken the bus. No sooner would one ride let me off than another one would stop to pick me up. A person let me off in Paris, Kentucky on a back road. I got sidetracked. A mother and several children picked me up next, and I sat in the back seat with two children. One of the small children was fascinated that I was in the army, and this child who was about four or five years old asked me very mater-a-faculty if there were “Negro’s” in the Army. I never got a chance to answer him because the mother very quickly said the child’s name, which changed the subject. My ride across the Ohio River let me off on an expressway exit ramp. I walked to the bus station where I was going to get a bus to Markin Farm seventeen miles outside Cincinnati.
That week that Summer the National Guard was encamped in Cincinnati and many other large cities. Some people had gone on a rampage. They thought they were getting a raw deal compared to the other people. The National Guard was supposed to keep a lid on things. Unaware of this, I was walking across a desolate part of town in the dark in my army dress uniform. The National guardsmen were wearing army uniforms, but they didn’t go outside alone at night. There were some National Guardsmen in the bus station.
At home I pulled Morituri out of the sub-cellar of a barn with a tractor. It wouldn’t start without being pulled. Then I spent most of my time on trails in the woods.
One of my sisters was home. She knew a boy and also a girl. We went out together to a place where we could buy a drink. Later that night the girl and I were alone. It was late. I drove her home and turned the automobile off in her driveway. Her house was near the street in a new housing development. The automobile was about fifty feet from the house. We stayed there a long time talking. The lights were all out in her house. Before long my pants were unzipped, and she was sitting in my lap facing me. We were trying to have sexual intercourse. We didn’t have sexual intercourse in the true sense of the word. We forgot to undress. She had a piece of clothing on her lower end that looked like a skirt, but had a middle part like shorts. Later on she drove down to Columbus, Georgia. She got a room in a local motel. I got a three-day pass, and a series of overnight passes. We refined the process. It seemed, during the three days of the weekend we didn’t see the light of day except to eat. The only other time we went outside we went to the motel pool. There was an Officers Candidate School (O.C.S.) at Fort Benning and it seemed all of them were at the pool. We only stayed there a minute or less. It was like being in a monkey cage. There were no other women there. The O.C.S people were having fun among themselves, but when they saw the girl it was like they turned into a bunch of monkeys jumping up and down making monkey noises. We went back to the room.
After that weekend I got over night passes which meant she could pick me up late in the afternoon and I had to report back to our unit the next morning. At the time I didn’t know she was exceptionally different about the way she naturally vocalized rhythmic sexual movement. I don’t think she knew she was making any noise. It was loud. Nobody complained. To the contrary the people above us apparently got fired up. I could hear the bed above hitting the wall. I hopped it wasn’t two O.C.S. troops.
She told me that one afternoon when she was alone someone knocked on the door who said he was the motel manager. She said she hated the personal questions he asked. She said he was wrong about everything. They heard about us in the front office. On the last day we had breakfast and there was very little to say. We seemed to both know there was very little to say, but we said good-bye.
Our Company commander was a Major in rank. He was marching us down a paved road shouting the cadence. It started to rain. Our First Sergeant pulled up beside him in an Army light utility vehicle and asked him if he wanted a ride. I was marching in the formation near where the Major was. The Major said not unless you have room for all of us in there. The first sergeant knew the army as well as the major. There was about as much chance of the major getting in that seat as all of being discharged from active duty on that same day. If he had left us we would have marched into a brick wall.
Our unit was complete and we were waiting to be transported to Vietnam. The Chinook helicopters were put aboard a ship on the Atlantic coast. All the other heavy things went on that ship.
Early one evening we were told to get in formation with our duffel bag. It was dark outside. Finally, this was the big move. We got on buses that took us to a nearby runway where there was a large jet airplane waiting. It was a C-141 Starlifter. The wing was on top of the fuselage. We sat along the sides of the aircraft in web cargo seats. The airplane wasn’t in the habit of carrying live people. The cargo bay was dimly lit. Even after it was at cruising altitude the engines were too loud for casual talk. It was an effort to talk. We were on our way to Vietnam.
Others and myself spent the first part of the trip dozing in and out of consciousness. The first part was over when the airplane landed at Elmendorf Air force Base near Anchorage, Alaska to refuel. We must have been catching up to the sun, because it was daylight in Alaska. We stood beside the airplane to stretch our legs while a tanker truck did its thing. Wooded hills were in the distance. The air had a different smell. If a dog was there, it would have sniffed the air with it’s noise pointing up.
When the plane left Alaska the next stop was Japan. For a brief moment we stood in daylight near the plane while it was re-fueled one more time. There were many utility poles and wires going between poles. There wasn’t much to see from that place. Soon we got back on the plane and departed.
The last stop was Tan Son Nhat air base outside Saigon, Vietnam. From there we went by helicopter to the air base at Bien Hoa. For the most part all travel by Americans in that country was done by helicopter. Nobody drove from one city to the other unless they had something heavy and unessential to transport like a refrigerator. Several vehicles in a convoy did any travel over roads. Many precautions were taken to avoid being ambushed by the other side. The opposing army was called either Viet Cong (VC) or the North Vietnam Army (NVA). On our side was the Army of the republic of Vietnam (ARVN). They were Vietnamese. I don’t know what Americans were called. When I went to Nationalist China for my “rest and recuperation” (R&R) I was referred to in a written greeting card as an “anti-Communist warrior”. It made me feel like I had a sword, a spear, and a javelin.
Bien Hoa was a steamy little city teaming with life. We were put in an Old French compound at the north end of the city. At the south end of the city was the Bien Hoa Air Base where our helicopters were kept. We were in Bien Hoa for three months while our company area was being prepared at Cu Chi. Pilots from our unit immediately started flying sorties for the 25th Infantry Division. Other people in our unit who were not directly involved with the helicopters had little to do. I was one of these people. We marked time. Each of us had one year to be there, and the clock started ticking the moment we arrived.
I helped string a field telephone wire from our Company area on the north side of Bien Hoa to the helicopters at the air base on the south side. We spent many of the following days between those two points in the town of Bien Hoa drinking Vietnamese beer and “trouble shooting” the line. The sergeant in charge of our section told us to “trouble shoot” the line often. That was his job. We found imaginary and real breaks in the line. We kept it operational. It went on utility poles through town, but toward the air base there were no poles or trees. The wire lay on the ground. That is where most of the breaks occurred.
There were four of us in the communications (commo) section of headquarters platoon. There was another 36K20 person and two radio teletype operators. The other 36K20 person said we were the heads of headquarters. At that time a “head” was an American who ingested or inhaled mood-modifying substances.
The two radio teletype operators were trained to send messages in code. Code was a series of electronic dashes and dots. The 242 ASH Company was capable of operating out of a field. If that were the situation we would then receive our helicopter missions each day in code. The other side wouldn’t be able to tell what the 25th division was doing by listening to radio transmissions. That is why our Company had two radio teletype operators.
Learning code was difficult. The Army sent the smartest people to that school. Additionally those people had to have a security clearance of secrete. The highest clearance was top secrete. Our Company wasn’t going to use radio teletype so they helped us string wires.
The four of us shared one room that was part of some very nice old buildings built years before by the French people for their army. The buildings had red tile roofs and thick white walls that felt cool in the middle of a hot day. There were louvered wood shutters on the windows. At night they were closed. There was no screen or glass. The floor was six-inch square pieces of dark red ceramic tile. It continued outside underneath a covered walkway that went alongside the rooms. Each room was about ten by fifteen feet in size with high ceilings. It was unusual that enlisted men (soldiers who are not officers) would have such beautiful housing. The Army put us there probably because they had no where else to put us, and because the place was too remote to safely put officers. Our compound was between two roads that forked together a thousand feet South of us to form the main street down through the middle of Bien Hoa.
On the north side of our compound there was a high wall that was like the walls in the rooms. There was a lightly traveled residential street on the outside of the wall. It connected the two roads that formed the main street in Bien Hoa.
There were quite a few days when the four of us in the commo section would get a ride to the air base several miles away. We would buy a bottle of bourbon whiskey at the PX and work our way back up through Bien Hoa. When we got back to our compound the day was over, the bottle was empty, and we slept or read until supper. If we ate anything for lunch it was eaten in town. There were no restaurants, however along the street there was someone who had a cart filled with the ingredients of a sandwich. We were told informally never to eat the local food because the meat might be from any animal. We were told the Vietnamese people eat dogs among other things. One time I had one of those sandwiches. I was slightly drunk and very hungry. I didn’t care what it was made from and as I remember it was very tasty. The bread was a fresh thick loaf about three inches in diameter. When I thought about it later I was sure I had eaten fresh dog meat and I never ate one again. We usually drank our lunch.
Other days we wouldn’t go all the way to the PX at the air base. We would go to the bottom of town and zigzag our way back and forth from bar to bar. We would end up at our compound going fast asleep. In each bar they served a French beer made in Vietnam. It was always served cold. Each bar had a bevy of young pretty girls. They spoke broken English. If they sat with us, as they were always welcome to do we had to buy them a drink. It was their job to get us to buy them drinks. Their drink was always non-alcoholic colored water that cost twice as much as a beer. The American GI named that drink “Saigon Tea”. Unlike us, they had to remain sober throughout the day.
We went to the same bars often enough and became well known. There was a girl in each bar who I liked. The Saigon Tea was an indirect way of paying for a female’s companionship. It was sort of a forgone conclusion that we were disgusting sloppy GI’s. We didn’t disappoint them in that respect. We were always the first ones there. Sometimes we were outside waiting when they unlocked the door. I don’t remember what we ever talked about, the girls and me, but I do remember that a bargirl was not a prostitute. There was one girl in one bar I especially liked and when I suggested we go somewhere and roll in the hay she got up and left. Before she left she turned around and verbally scolded me.
When I first got to Vietnam and didn’t know to much about what was going on, me and the other 36K20 person were walking up through town with a bottle of bourbon and this small child comes up to us and says, “GI want Puck?” He keeps saying over and over again, “GI want Puck.” I wondered what in the world was he talking about. I thought, did he play hockey? Then he says, “number one French girl.” Then I knew about what he was talking. He was tugging on my sleeve and he led us through back streets. I felt like J. Alfred Prufrock. I was glazed over and feeling no pain. We had been to a few of the bars by then. When they saw us walking up the dirt path with the boy in front leading us, three or four women came out to welcome us. They were about as French as my dead Grandmother.
One of the women put her hand on my crotch. Then without a word she unbuttoned my pants and put her hand inside in an inquisitive way. We didn’t have zippers on our pants. The designers of our clothes must have thought the enemy might hear someone unzipping his pants. Buttons were quieter.
She was not at all bashful. Her directness and her dispensing with meaningless talk was amazing to me. Actually I don’t think she spoke any English. I don’t know because I never tried to converse with her. I looked over at the other 36K20 person. There were several women standing next to him. He was paying attention to them. He and I exchanged glances. This was beyond control. When I came back outside he was waiting in practically the same spot where he was before. For a second I wondered if I was the only one out of control.
A long time later I was watching my son’s hockey practice at an indoor skating rink. On the other side of the rink there was a big sign that said if a person wanted tickets to see a local professional hockey game they should call ___-PUCK. It made me think of that incident so many years before.
Several of us were sitting in one room. A pet monkey was there. The owner had just gotten it from someone else. I don’t know what happened to the monkey but it didn’t go to Cu Chi with us. When a person who had not seen the monkey before entered the room the monkey started screeching and having a fit. It was obvious to everyone including the one who came in that the monkey was reacting to him. To explain the situation he said, “The monkey don’t like me. If you see me running look for the monkey behind me.” This person was the only one in the room with black skin. He was very tall and slender. He had a gold tooth in the front. He talked calmly and distinctly, and moved like he was going to get a crown. The monkey’s reaction to him could only be a conditioned response. An animal has no other learning mechanism. Two things I knew for certain. One, the monkey had a previous owner. Two, the room was full of people, and the only visible difference in this one was the color of his skin.
The Army Corp of Engineers built a paved highway between Bien Hoa and Saigon. I never traveled on it, but I heard about it from my favorite bar girl who lived in Saigon. The main street in Bien Hoa was surfaced with something hard, but it wasn’t blacktop. The street was busy from early morning until the end of day. I never saw it at night. In the day there were many bicycles, two-cycle motor scooters, and small three wheeled two-cycle vehicles loaded high and wide. There were people on foot, and comparatively huge Army trucks called duce-and-a-half that lumbered up and down the street. There were a few French four-door automobiles with running boards, and headlamps. All of them were black. Those were practically the only automobiles I saw in Bien Hoa.
We entered our living area from the lightly traveled residential road that connected the two busy roads. We entered on the side where the sun sets. Our compound was on the edge of town and it wasn’t unusual to see a water buffalo being led toward town or away from town, but never in town. There was a Military Policeman (MP) standing by the entrance. I suppose he kept people with water buffaloes from taking a short cut. There was a rice paddy across from where we went in, and there was another one on the far side.
The commo shed was on that far side. When I had switchboard duty at night I could look out across the rice paddy to where people lived. I could see them cooking on charcoal. I could smell the charcoal fires. I would sit back, and watch the tiny lizards crawl on the wall. In the light from the window I saw a rat. It was so big that when it moved it bounded instead of scurried. There was a heli-pad next to the commo shed where helicopters landed during the day. They would fly very slowly over the rice paddy, and set down lightly. People would get out just like it was a car. Those helicopters were UH-B1 Hueys. I developed an attraction for the helicopter. When I got out of the Army I bought an auto gyro kit, and flew it about ten hours before I crashed it the second time. After that I gave it up. It wasn’t a full-fledged helicopter. It was a lawn chair that flies. Informally it was called a widow maker. I wasn’t married at the time.
One of the two radio teletype operators assigned to our unit often read books in the afternoon, and I would read the books he read after he had finished them. We got in discussions about the books. A book he was reading had a passage he memorized, and repeated to me when he thought it appropriate. I too memorized the expression. It was, “Dense and unenlightened people are notoriously confident they have a monopoly on truth.”
The other radio teletype operator and me were making the rounds in Bien Hoa. We happened upon a pedi cab or rickshaw driver who was standing beside his cab. He had a light metal tube about a foot long and a quarter-inch in diameter. Between his thumb and index finger he was rolling something into a ball, which he inserted into one end of the tube. The other end he put in his mouth. He then lit it and smoked what it was. He was wearing a straw hat Americans call a sand pan hat. It was round like a small umbrella without the stem. It came to an obtuse point on top, and formed a wide brim that kept the sun off his neck and head. He smelled like manila rope.
The radio teletype person with me said to him, “Number one pot. We want number one pot.” The man with the sand pan hat didn’t speak the English language, but he understood what was being said. Pot was an American word for marijuana. He motioned for us to get in his rickshaw. We piled in and he trotted off. A rickshaw has two light wheels on each side where the passengers sit. There are two shafts that the person holds who is pulling the rickshaw. It is very much like a pony cart.
As we went down many back streets and around many corners I became completely lost. I was hoping he wasn’t a VC with plans. We were helpless, dumb Americans, in a strange land. Eventually, he came to a stop outside a door. We got out as if we owned the place, and knew just where we were. A mama-san came to the door and we all went inside.
To an American GI everyone Vietnamese was a papa-san, mama-san, girl-san, boy-san, or baby-san. This was a mama-san and she spoke to the man at length in Vietnamese. We pretended to understand every word. Then she left the room, and came back with a large bowl of marijuana. The papa-san who brought us was very concerned about his rickshaw. He kept turning around, and looking at it through the open door. We weren’t very concerned about his leaving because we hadn’t paid him yet. Neither one of us was sober. But, I was sober enough that if he did leave I was going to look for cover, and take the mama-san with me.
As it turned out he went outside and smoked. We bought some marijuana and he took us back to the main street. Bien Hoa was tightly controlled by the South Vietnamese who were on the same side as the Americans. It would have been bad for business if she didn’t treat us right.
A war was raging all around these people who simply wanted to brush their Water Buffalo. Everyone was told all sorts of things about the other side. The enemy would have two heads, and antennae. Whoever thought it up would have no eye contact with the dead people.
The Armed Forces Radio was a radio station in English. It would broadcast news events for the American GI. One day when I was lying on my bed reading, the radio had something the President of the United States of America said to the American people. In his own words he said that he was going step up the bombing as much as was necessary to win in Vietnam. Then, at the same time as the broadcast a pair of F-4 Phantom fighter bombers took off at the Bien Hoa Air Base. The President was our commander and chief. He was the leader of the American Armed forces. It was strange being at both ends: to hear what he was going to do and at the same time hear it being done. It was very dramatic even if he was talking about another kind of bombing.
It was my turn to do guard duty. At basic training I learned the Army’s way to make sure a person was who they said they were, was called “authentication”. It worked like this: When a voice came from outside the perimeter in the night the guard would ask them if they could authenticate three words that corresponded to letters of the alphabet. Each letter of the alphabet was represented by a word. For example Z was represented by the word Zulu, B by the word Bravo, H by the word Hotel; C was Charlie. Every letter had a corresponding word. The guard would say, “Can you authenticate Zulu, Bravo, Hotel.” If the person was who they said they were, they would say something like this: “The authentication for Zulu, Bravo, Hotel is Foxtrot, Delta, Victor.” A person would not know the matching words if they hadn’t come from inside the camp that night. The words could be changed for each patrol, or as often as anyone liked. The military people at basic said anyone walking around in the middle of the night was “unfriendly.” The whole business of authentication, although it sounded good, was not used in Vietnam. We didn’t do it that night, or as far as I know on any other night, in any other place.
Many of the people in our Company were being transferred to other units. That way everyone in our unit wouldn’t go home at the same time. We arrived in Vietnam on the same day. If no one was transferred we would all go home on the same day. Most of the transfers were people directly involved with the helicopters. The commo section that I was in was non-essential so we were not transferred. There were four of us, and a buck sergeant in charge. The buck sergeant considered everything seriously. The army was his career. He was in for 20 years. We didn’t have to salute him, but we always did the best we could to show him due respect even if we were blurry eyed most of the time. We would make him look good by being very dutiful soldiers. That was especially true when his superiors were in the area. He could have made life miserable for us if he wanted to, but he didn’t. The other three and myself in our section were very appreciative that he left us alone as long as we did our job, or, pretended we had a job. Actually, we didn’t have a job that amounted to anything. None of us were called for and the fact that we were never seen standing still was very important to our overall objective of doing nothing. We stayed out of the way. We always walked fast around the Company area as if we had many things to do and so little time to do them. We fit right in because that is the way everyone else looked. Maybe, everyone had nothing to do and they wanted to look busy like us.
Finally, our area at Cu Chi was ready. Bien Hoa was fun, but bottles of bourbon were starting to grow on me. I was anxious to move to Cu Chi. Three months had passed and the longest anyone had to be in that country was a year, 365 days. Many people would mark off each day on a calendar. I had a relatively enjoyable time. If things were different perhaps I would have looked at the calendar more often. Army life was one big blur for me. I didn’t have to kill anyone and no one had to kill me. I am very aware that I lived through that “conflict” and the tragedy of life is that many others didn’t. They went home in a box.
I wrote to my sister about what it was like to go to Cu Chi and she wrote back. Among other things she said it was a very graphic description. I wrote to her that I went there by helicopter, and going there was like an insect flying a few inches over someone’s plush green living room rug. Then off in the distance there appears a square cracker. That is the 25th division base camp at Cu Chi and the insect is going to land there.
A friend of mine, who worked on the flight line traveled to Cu Chi in a truck, loaded with things. The person driving the truck was Vietnamese. My friend rode along with his rifle, helmet, and flack jacket. The driver was wearing long khaki pants and a sort sleeve shirt. The flight line person said it was just him and the civilian driver in the cab of the truck, and that they were in a convoy of trucks. The truck he was in got further and further behind the truck in front. My friend said he motioned for the driver to catch up but the driver didn’t seem to understand. The flight line person imagined that when the other truck was out of sight the driver of his truck (I don’t know if it was the last truck) would turn somewhere and get rich from selling all the things on the black market. That truck carried mostly refrigerators and other American made major appliances. All the things people would kill for. He said he got scared thinking all that could happen. He chambered a cartridge in his rifle, which would have made a very audible and universally understandable sound. He said he leaned over and put the end of the barrel against the Vietnamese man’s head and told him in plane English to speed up. It is questionable as to whether or not the man understood the English language, but he understood everything else because he radically accelerated the truck.
Our company area at Cu Chi was permanent. All the buildings had concrete floors with one-inch by six-inch louvered wood sides. Screens were behind the wood. The roof was the most solid part of each building. It was constructed of very light corrugated, galvanized, sheet metal. I had an army cot bed. It was the most prominent part of each persons living area. Twenty or thirty cots were arranged in parallel down each side of the barracks. There was an aisle down the middle. Civilians came on the base each day to clean the barracks.
We got our regular Army pay, which was based, on our rank plus about a third more money for “hazardous duty”. There was no place to spend large amounts of cash in Vietnam so we indicated on a form to which bank account we would like our money sent. The bank was usually in each person’s hometown. What little money we had in Vietnam was in the form of MPC (Military Payment Certificate). We weren’t allowed to have dollars (green backs). The Vietnamese economy accepted MPC, but they liked their own currency better.
Other civilians came on the base each day to fill sandbags. Eventually, each building had a sandbag wall about four feet high all the way around the outside of the building. These people enlarged the bunkers, on the perimeter. There was always a need for more sandbags. Occasionally at night our company area was mortared. Rather that run to the bunker outside, we were instructed to lie on the floor. Unless there was a direct hit on a barracks the sandbags on the outside would stop any shrapnel. One person was killed because he was running to the bunker after a mortar attack had begun.
It turned out that mortars were mostly for harassment. Members of the 25th Infantry Division must have harassed the enemy in return or they practiced with mortar tubes from the perimeter.
One night when I had switchboard duty the radio teletype operator who rode in the rickshaw in Bien Hoa with me was having a party in one of the bunkers on the perimeter. He threw a lit match under the wood boards he was sitting on, and as he later put it, he “got burnt up”. Under the seat there was some scattered pieces of plastic explosive used to propel mortars. The infantry people firing mortars carelessly left behind scraps of this propellant. Someone who was sitting on the open side of the bunker said that for a millisecond there was this great “whoosh” sound and a great ball of fire engulfed everything, and extended out of the bunker. There was no explosion. The teletype operator got some third degree burns on his face, but otherwise he was not hurt. No one else was hurt either. It broke up the party.
My friend went to the base camp hospital for treatment of his burns. The other radio teletype operator went to see him. He said his burnt friend went on and on about how “sick” the wounded were in that hospital. They were mostly combatants. The burnt teletype operator said wounded infantry people joked among themselves about the positions “gooks” die in, and he said they copied those positions in their bed. “Gook” was the American expression for a Vietnamese person. In this instance a Vietnamese person who was either VC or NVA. We named the NVA. They named themselves the NLF, which stood for the National Liberation Front.
The latrines were small buildings where human waste was deposited in a sanitary manner. There was no running water. Our latrines consisted of a front door where a person entered. There was a concrete floor inside and after entering about five feet further back there were four toilet seats side by side. Around the back of the building at ground level there were low doors that would swing open. Steel 50-gallon drums cut in half were placed under each of the toilet seats. Human waste would drop into the steel drums.
Each day a GI with three or four civilians would collect the waste. After the GI checked inside, the civilians would slide out the cut off steel drums. They would then lift each one into the back of a truck and replace it with an empty one.
The driver would go to a place on the perimeter where the wind was blowing away from the base camp. The civilians would put the cut-off drums on the ground, add a little diesel fuel, and light them on fire. When it was done the drum would be empty inside. The smoke was thick and black.
There was a person who couldn’t handle life in Vietnam anymore. He wore little round sunglasses and things around his neck. He was beginning to come apart mentally. He went to an Army psychiatrist at the base camp at Cu Chi. We had a resident psychiatrist. This distressed person went to the psychiatrist glassy eyed, and thoroughly under the influence of marijuana. It could be gotten from the civilians. He was hoping the doctor would think he was a lost cause and give him “early out”. He said he told the doctor that Vietnam was a God forsaken Country. The psychiatrist didn’t send him home. He was given the permanent job of “beautifying” the company area, and he was told to quit smoking that nasty weed. The first sergeant added one thing, that the new job classification include burning human fecal matter, however the first sergeant and everyone referred to human solid waste with one four letter word.
A three-quarter ton truck was assigned to this person, and he spent the remainder of his time in Vietnam “beautifying” our company area.
In the United States at that time two phonograph records had just been released, and my older sister sent them to me. We all got together and bought a phonograph machine at the PX. One of the records my sister sent was called “Are You Experienced”, and the other one was called “Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band”. Then she sent another one called “Magical Mystery Tour”. We played those records until we wore them out. We would sit around in the evening, modify our mood with that nasty weed, and talk while one of those records was playing. One evening we got a case of maraschino cherries from S-3 (supply). We ate the whole case. Cherries never tasted so good. We also tortured a scorpion with a can of insect spray. The active ingredient in that can was a great big long scientific word with more than fifteen letters. I knew it was made especially for the Army because the can was “olive drab.” That was the Army color. Everything the Army had was that color: airplanes, tanks, helicopters, and cans of bug spray. If the army had it, it was painted “olive drab.”
There was a notice on the company bulletin board that they were seeking an enlisted person to tend bar, and run the day to day operation of our Officers Club. One of the teletype operators and me showed up. We were supposed to wear civilian clothes. We wore our best civilian clothes and neckties. A Warrant Officer met us, and put us to work serving supper in the club. He said we didn’t have to wear ties, and please take them off. There were four grades of Warrant Officer. He was a W-3 grade. He was older than most of the other officers. He had more than 8,000 hours of flying time in a CH-47 Chinook.
Our company had about thirty pilots who were all officers. A Warrant Officer never told anyone what to do. They were experts at flying and nobody told them what to do. They did their job, and weren’t concerned about much else. The younger pilots greatly respected them. Rank meant little.
That night in the Officers Club the Company Commanding Officer (CO) asked me why I wanted the job, and I said that I knew that I should serve from the left and pick up from the right. He asked if that was a fact. He asked how I knew that, and I said it was something I picked up along the way. He and I were very different, but I liked him. I think he liked me. He was a field grade officer from the Southeastern part of the United States. He didn’t have much use for formal education. Sometimes he flew the Chinook. He had an Executive Officer who was also a Major.
The executive officer was in charge of helicopter maintenance, which was largely about the availability of aircraft. The Company Commander oversaw that as well as the daily routines of all company personnel.
I was informed later that I should report for work each day at the Officers Club. I reported to a W-1. The W-3 I first saw oversaw the W-1 and the W-1 oversaw me. I officially became the custodian of the officers club. That meant I was the manager. A civilian mama-san cleaned the Club each day. She reported to me. The army had a very clear-cut chain of command. The President of the United States was our Commander and Chief. A five star general reported to him.
The EM shower was next to the headquarters barracks. The shower consisted of a large rubber bladder that held about 300 gallons of water. A gasoline pump moved the water from the bladder to showerheads. I slept late because I worked at night in the officers club. Most mornings I would wake up to the sound of people trying to start the gasoline engine so they could take a shower. When I got up several hours later I didn’t have any easier time trying to start that engine.
One morning I walked into the supply building and told S-3 about the difficulty we were having with the pump. He issued me an electric motor driven pump, wire, a switch, and other necessary hardware to hook the thing up. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but now I realize how unusual it was for him to issue me that kind of hardware. I was dressed in civilian clothes, and I worked around officers all the time. I was friendly toward him, and explained the problem. He got the electric pump, wire, and everything else. Later, I realized how that would have infuriated the first sergeant. I had taken it upon myself to put an electric pump in the enlisted men’s shower. I was the equivalent of a Private 4th class. I wired the pump into the electric line in the Headquarters Barracks.
We had a 100 KW generator that supplied electricity to our entire company. It was only shut off for periodic maintenance. It was located over by the flight line. Judging by the sound and size of the block it was probably two or three times bigger than a truck engine. Wires came into each building from poles. On the inside wall there was a panel. In the panel there was a master breaker, then down from there was a row of smaller breakers. I wired the pump into one of the smaller breakers.
It was very nice to simply flick a switch and get water. For several days it was that way, but one morning when I went out to take a shower I saw that all the insulation was melted off the wires. They had gotten very hot. I went into the barracks and when I opened the panel I saw that the pump had been rewired. It was wired directly to the 100 KW generator. I couldn’t imagine under what circumstances someone would have changed the wires, but I was certain it had been changed. I went to S-3 and told him that some fool had rewired the pump directly to the generator. Shortly after that the pump had new wires and was working once more. I never looked to see how it was wired into the building.
There was a traveling United Services Organization (USO) show that came through the 25th division camp at Cu Chi. One night they performed at our company Enlisted Men’s Club and the second night they performed at our Officers Club.
They were a small group from Los Vegas, Nevada, and one of their leading members was a physically beautiful woman from the United States. In the middle of the afternoon she and the CO were sitting alone in the officers club talking quietly. There was a time when I made her a drink.
I never had the opportunity to look into her eyes again, but I was very aware of her presence the entire time she was there. When I was behind the bar I heard the CO ask her to open her blouse, and show him her breasts. She had large breasts. Before that he must have been talking about her breasts. A bartender has much in common with a fly on the wall.
That night the USO group did a show at the Officers’ Club. They were supposed to be paid by each unit that contracted a performance. I heard later, long after they were gone, that the CO hadn’t paid them. I guess she never did open her blouse for him.
That night when they performed at the Officers Club an enlisted man from another unit came into the club and sat down. He had seen the show at our Enlisted Men’s Club and apparently he wanted to see it a second time. He came into the Officers’ Club for that reason.
Many of the hard core infantry people had faded fatigues that along with the olive drab color were slightly the color of dirt. A “Bird dog” reconnaissance plane had reported a large enemy buildup near us. MACV probably thought it was more than the 25th division could handle. For the better part of half a day C-123 fixed wing aircraft brought planeload after planeload of infantrymen from the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division. They were MACV’s reactionary force. He was probably from that unit. Army decorum wasn’t very relevant to those people. They did and died. He didn’t have any insignia on his fatigues that I could see. Enlisted men were not allowed in an officers club and officers were not allowed to fraternize with enlisted personnel.
The CO prided himself on being physically strong. He kept his sleeves rolled up higher than anybody else did. He had big muscular arms that showed. He walked up to where the enlisted man (boy) was sitting, and asked him if he was an officer. I didn’t here the answer. The CO then told him he had ten seconds to leave and he raised his arm to look at his wristwatch. The enlisted man didn’t move. Then after a short while the CO grabbed him by the shirt with both hands and yanked him up. The enlisted man didn’t resist. The CO held onto his shirt with arms outstretched. They whirled around toward the door and went outside where it had gotten dark.
When the CO came back inside another officer went outside. I saw the other officer with his arm over the boy’s shoulder walking back and forth like he was trying to console him. The boy was wiping his eyes. He didn’t appear physically hurt.
The CO had the Army Corp of Engineers dig a hole for a swimming pool. They did other work on the pool in trade for helicopter time.
After the hole was dug, sand baggers stacked sandbags in the shape of the pool. The ground behind the sandbags was back filled and compacted. The pool was then lined with rubber sheeting used for helicopter landing pads. The pool was about twenty feet wide, forty feet long and about eight feet deep.
After the pool was finished the Army Corp of Engineers dug a well. They positioned a crane with a clam shell bucket over a spot, and started digging. The walls of the well never caved in while it was being dug. Gravel was put in the bottom, and then a galvanized pipe was lowered down the length of the hole. The space on the outside of the pipe was back filled. An electric pump was lowered down into the well. It delivered over three hundred gallons of water per day. The Major had the only swimming pool in Cu Chi.
One night in the early morning when everyone was asleep, after I locked up the Officers Club I took my clothes off and went in the water. It was a clear starlit night. That was the only time I went in that pool.
One day I got a notice that I was to report to the orderly room (the company office). That is where the First Sergeant had a desk and where the CO had an office. When I went into the CO’s office the First Sergeant was standing behind and to one side of the Major who was sitting behind his desk. I knew that this was the time to play Army to the best of my ability. I marched in there smartly. I came to a stop, and executed a perfect square corner. I faced the CO and the First sergeant.
The people at West Point (a military school) would have been proud of me. I stood at attention and saluted the Major. He returned my salute and said “at ease”. I assumed the “at ease” position. I crisply stepped one foot to the side, clasped my hands behind my back, looked directly at the CO, and acted relaxed. I was there because the First Sergeant had said my area was not as neat as it should be. I think he wanted me transferred to the “Russian front.”
In the officer’s club, officers didn’t want to be reminded of protocol. I was told to wear civilian clothes, I suppose, so it wouldn’t be so obvious I was a soldier. Now, here I was in a military situation dressed in jungle fatigues. I hoped the CO was impressed with my knowledge of military behavior. He probably didn’t know what to expect. He had to know how hard I was trying to play soldier.
Dealing with my messy area was a duty the CO had to handle. The First Sergeant made it an issue. The First Sergeant was in charge of the enlisted men. I was an enlisted man. According to the Army chain of command I reported to the First Sergeant, and he reported to the CO. My area looked as neat or messy as anyone else’s did. He was grinding an ax. I never broke rules, and that kept him at bay.
Several times right after I closed the Officer’s Club we would go to a big bunker. 25th Division perimeter guards thought a motor attack was coming. Headquarters platoon shared a bunker with all the NCOs (sergeants).
I was in that bunker extremely drunk, and there was nothing the First Sergeant could do. According to the other 36K20 person it was obvious I was drunk. He said no one else was talking except me loudly about all the Communist interruptions. The bunker was dark inside. It was pitch dark. Everyone, including the First Sergeant was sitting anonymously in the dark. The 36K20 person told me I repeated over and over again that an American civilian helicopter technician kept buying everyone drinks. The W-3 Warrant Officer I saw about the job said I could drink as long as I didn’t get inebriated. That night was an exception. I got inebriated, but to someone who didn’t know any better it may have seemed that’s the way I finished off every day.
There was another time in Vietnam when I inadvertently got under the First Sergeants skin. I was walking from the Officer’s Club to the mess hall to get something we needed. There was a Vietnamese civilian at the back door of the mess hall. He was wearing a pair of shorts and sandals. He was just standing there.
I opened the back door of the mess hall in my civilian clothes. I called to the Mess Sergeant, “What does he want?” The Mess Sergeant said from inside that he wanted something to eat. The Mess Sergeant said the man wouldn’t leave. I looked at the man. He didn’t look at me, but he pointed to his open mouth. Then for a split second our eyes did meet. “Give him something to eat,” I said. “Why do you think we are here?” the Mess Sergeant was giving him something to eat as I was leaving.
That same day in the Officer’s Club that night without mentioning that incident the CO said pointedly to me that we didn’t know anything about the civilian sand baggers who come on the base. He said there might be enemy spies among them. The Mess Sergeant had told the First Sergeant, and the First Sergeant had told the CO hoping to get me in trouble. The glance of that man keeps coming back to me.
From behind his desk the CO said to me, “The First Sergeant tells me that you’re not keeping your area neat.”
“Sir,” I said, “If the First Sergeant says my area is not neat then it is not neat. I pay a civilian to keep it neat. I will watch more closely how it looks.” There were a few more exchanges, but a potentially ugly situation had been defused.
In the middle of my time in Vietnam I got R&R (rest and recuperation). All GI’s got that once during the year they were in Vietnam. The U.S. Government paid our transportation to one of the big cities in South East Asia.
I didn’t know what to expect. I soon learned there was a road mapped out for us, and a procedure that had been set in motion years earlier.
I put in for several places. A clerk in the orderly room told me that all the airplane seats to all my choices except the last one were taken. The First Sergeant authorized a person’s R&R trip. Last on my list was Taipei. There was a seat on that airplane. Taipei is the capital city of Taiwan also known a Formosa or Nationalist China. Western civilization and Western influence were firmly established there.
One other person from our unit was going to Taipei on that airplane. I did not know him before that trip and I never met him again after we got back. When we landed in Taipei there was a busload of GI’s from Vietnam. We all went to a processing center where our money was exchanged for the local currency. On the way there a NCO stood up in the aisle in the front of the bus and told us there was a war going on between the taxicabs and the pedicabs. He said the taxicabs were winning, and not to travel in a pedicab. He also told us not to wear our uniform.
From the processing center we went to the hotel of our choice. Me and the other person from our unit went to the same hotel. We each had our own spacious room. Money was no object. Within ten minutes there was a knock on the door. It was a Chinese man selling tailor made suits. He said he would take the measurement and the suit would be made and back to me before I left. I asked him what would I do with a suit. I said even if they sent me home in a box they wouldn’t put a civilian suit on me. I looked at the cloth samples he had. They were glassy. I said there are some people who would wear that stuff, but I wasn’t one of them. I practically had to push him out the door to get him to leave.
I went to the street to get a taxicab somewhere. I didn’t know where. I said to the cab driver that I was new in country, and asked him where would be a lively place to go? He didn’t have to think. Off we sped. I paid him when he stopped. Inside there was a very ornate bar that went down the length of the room. There wasn’t a soul sitting at the bar. There was a bartender polishing the bar. Across from the bar on the other side of the room a row of girls sat on a hard wood bench like ducks in a row. I didn’t look at them. I went to the bar and got a drink. I was sitting there for a while minding my own business and suddenly this girl is standing beside me talking. She points to the bench and says do I see a girl I like. There were three girls bouncing a golf ball on the floor oblivious to what was around them. That one, I said, pointing to one of the three lovely girls. The girl who was standing beside me said that girl was “going to meet her brother in a few moments”. It was definitely a first time experience to be able to sit on a bar stool and point to this one or that one like I was in a market.
I said I would go outside and come back in a little while after her brother left. When returning I noticed from across the street an old Chinese man who was squatting down. When he saw me he quickly went inside as if to say I was coming. When I was inside the same girl came up to me. I asked where so and so was? By then I knew the girls name, or her trade name. The girl I was talking with said that girl had to go, but she asked, “Do you see any other girl you would like?” It was sad thinking I was never again going to see that girl. Then I looked up, and said what about you. She dipped down a little bit by bending her knees.
She led me up a spiral staircase to another part of the bar. She went in front of me. She was kind of swanky the way she moved up those stairs in that little red Chinese dress. We sat down in a booth, and I got another drink. She ordered a Saigon Tea or whatever it was called in that country. A few moments later when the bartender brought her a second one she snapped at him in Chinese. I think it was all for show. She was older, and very professional.
When we got up we went over to a bald headed Chinese man behind a partition. He completed the necessary paper work. I signed a contract or legal agreement. It was prostitution pure and simple but it was more. It was companionship, a tour guide, a trustworthy person, and a prostitute all in one. The government controlled prostitution. The bald headed man recorded my identification so there was a record of who went with whom, and when. I paid him some money and we left.
We went to a nightclub where there was a floorshow. The tables had white tablecloths, and we got Sharks Fin Soup.
Then she took me to a place where I thought she said she lived. She had all the keys. We went into a modern glass and steel building. We took the elevator up many floors. The door opened and we got off. It was an office in every direction. She unlocked several more doors and turned on electric lights. Everywhere it was an office. Then she went over to a wall and pushed a button that was not visible to me. A section of the wall silently slid back revealing a big room decorated like a bedroom with a big bed in the middle. She saw I was aghast. I could not conceal it from her. She watched me intently. I didn’t think those kind of places existed, but I saw it with my own eyes. I don’t know why she took me up there but she did.
We left that place. It was late in the evening and we went back to my hotel. In the morning she left. She asked me for some money to get her hair done, and I gave her some.
I met up with the guy from my unit, I got another girl, and he got one too. We went to a place run by the U.S. Government’s armed services.
That bar was a big enlisted men’s club. To get inside a person had to have military identification. No one wore a uniform. If a drink was non-alcoholic there was no pretending that it was alcoholic. A GI could have non-military personnel with them. Many people in there were with local girls and many were not. We sat at a large round table with other GIs and their female companions. People got up and left. People sat down. Soon all of the GI’s at the big round table had a different color skin than me. There must have been a U.S. military base near-by because my friend and I were the only ones from Vietnam.
Vietnam and where we were from was never discussed, but by the way they behaved I could tell they didn’t come from there. One person sort of took over the table, commenting that so-n-so’s girl was so fine looking. He was doing all the talking. When I said something to him with a big painless smile, he stared at me for what seemed like a long time. The person who flew down there with me quickly piped up, “He is with me”. Then the dominant one went on being dominant without replying to what I said. I finished my drink in a couple of gulps, and the girl and me got up to leave. My friend from Vietnam stayed there.
We walked out in the street and she asked me why I kept sitting there. She said the situation back there was strange to her.
I said to her as we walked nowhere in particular, so why stop there, everything is strange. I told her there are rays of sunshine everywhere. She asked what is a ray of sunshine? I told her she was a ray of sunshine.
That night we went to have supper in a place that wasn’t very big. She knew about that place. She said it was small and I would like it there. We sat at a cozy little table with a candle in the middle. There was a red checkered tablecloth. Someone walked around the room playing Italian canal music. A year later when I was living in New York City I wrote some words about that night: “What they were doing was nothing new to the world, but a Mediterranean man playing his accordion and a candle in a wax covered Chianti bottle were to him part of growing up. Because he had seen this in so many commercial productions it all suddenly seemed wasted. She was good to look at, but a part of the mood like the candle and the old man. When they finished they went out into the street to think of something to do. They walked and that was something. When she got to her bar she changed her shoes and they walked to the edge of town in the cool night. They took a pedicab back to his hotel. They took a shower and made love into sleep until the phone rang to wake him up. He put on his uniform and went back to the Army wondering what would be so wrong if he married a whore.” That night when we went back to my hotel she was very drunk. We stumbled, and I half carried her down the hallway. There was someone stationed at a desk by the elevator. I looked back at him and saw him starting to get up as if he thought I had abducted some sweet young thing. I also saw him sit back down in the same instance. All the GIs must have been on that floor.
She flopped down on the bed and was fast asleep. I stood there for a while looking at her. I sighed, thinking about spinning wheels in the mud. I lay down beside her, and went fast asleep. The next day she took me to a place far from the city. There were no other tourists or anyone except the people who lived there. We were near the ocean and there were workboats on moorings out on the water. As we meandered under trees a child ran up to us with a well-worn leather coat in his hands. He spoke in Chinese and she said he was insisting I wear the jacket. I asked her, does he want to give it to me. No, she said, he just wants you to wear it while you are here. He wants to see an American wear the jacket. I wore the jacket the whole time I was there. It fit perfectly. We walked around, and after that we sat outside at a small round table drinking hot Chinese tea. We sat close to each other. The same boy came over with a camera in his hand and asked her something in Chinese. She said to me that the boy wants to take a picture of us. She said I could keep the picture, but it will cost some money. She bargained with the child. He took our photograph, and I stuck the picture in my shirt pocket.
When we left that place the boy made sure he got his coat. It was late in the afternoon when we got back to Taipei. She turned and faced me. She said she had to get her hair done. She asked me for some money to get her hair done. I said, What? She repeated, looking down now and again, that she needed some money to get her hair done. I gave her some and she left.
I went back to the hotel and banged on my friend’s door. He was busy, and didn’t want to be bothered. I went to my room and in a short while was back on the street again. I was with the next girl the rest of the time I was in Taiwan which was two days and a night not counting the night I had to leave. The night I had to leave she sat with me in a taxicab at the processing center until the last minute. She never asked me for money to get her hair done. When I got back to Vietnam she wrote me a letter that said among other things that I “was a nice men”. I never wrote back.
She showed me many things in that country. She showed me a classroom where girls are taught English to be companions for the GI’s. I asked her why do so many pretty girls want to be companions for GI’s. She said she grew up far away from the city, and always wanted to live in Taipei. She said the older she got she realized how easy it would be for her to live in Taipei.
When it was dark outside, but still early in the night that girl took me where there were many Chinese people who didn’t see many tourists. We walked through a wide pedestrian tunnel several hundred feet long. It was over twenty feet wide. There were bright neon lights inside, and people sitting against the wall. There were young Chinese men standing in a group, talking among themselves. The ones standing stopped talking and looked at us when we went past. There were people busily walking both ways in the tunnel. I was the only Westerner. When they stopped talking and looked at us she looked down at the ground and started to walk faster. She was afraid of them. I walked faster also.
When we came out in the night we went a short way to a busy little area with many shops with bare light bulbs hanging from long wires. We walked into a restaurant and she talked to a man behind a high glass counter. Inside the counter there was a bed of crushed ice and in one place on the ice there was a whole fish over a foot long. They were talking about the fish. I wondered what she was saying because the conversation went on and on. I paid. He reached in, got the fish, and put it in boiling water. We went and sat down with some tea at a small square table against a wall. Moments later the man came out from behind the counter with the boiled fish on a round piece of wood. He also had two sets of chopsticks. That was the first time I had seen or used chopsticks in China. She showed me the best way to hold them. We didn’t have plates, or sauce, or salt, or pepper, or anything like that. Just the fish was there.
We scrapped back the skin with chopsticks and ate the meat. She ate the fish’s eye. She said that to her the fish’s eye was one of the best parts. I said to my countrymen and me the fish’s eyes, and for that matter it’s whole head gets wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper with the rest of its guts and thrown out. She laughed beautifully, and I said it is nice to know not everyone is the same when it comes to eating. She didn’t eat the other eye, and we didn’t go back the same way. We did other things that night and had a very nice time.
The next day a taxicab drove us down the coast. Across the water in the fog was Mainland China. We traveled on a paved, two-lane road. There was thick woodland on one side. On both sides there were no other structures except every several thousand feet on the ocean side there was a bunker. An overhead wire went from one bunker to the next. Over and over I pointed to the wire. I said it was the same wire we use. I knew it’s military nomenclature. I was startled to see that same wire there. I couldn’t believe that it was there. When I first saw it I thought some children used it to talk between tree houses. When the next bunker went past I looked for the wire again and there it was. It was the same wire that we were trained to string all over the place. I kept talking about it in amazement. She said something to the driver, and we turned inland on the next road. I should have kept my mouth shut and enjoyed the scenery. She was trying to show me a good time.
We turned back to the coast and came to a beautiful place where a hilly peninsula jutted out into the sea. We got out of the cab and walked out on the peninsula. It was a park with paved pathways. We came upon some Chinese teenage girls going the other way on the path. They were dressed the same in Chinese clothes. They were schoolgirls. We stopped facing each other. One of them said something and they giggled. They looked away and a few of them put their hand over their mouth. I wondered if they said something unkind because she shot back sternly in Chinese. They put on straight faces, and walked past in a hurry.
We stopped once more at a hilly place. Around one hill there were several brightly painted Chinese sailing boats on the ocean.
When we got back to Taipei she showed me where she lived. She said she lived with an older relative, but there was no one else there when she showed it to me. The windows were closed. They blocked out most of the light. They were more like shutters than windows. The room was dimly lit by sunlight that came through the closed shutters. She didn’t turn on any lights. I didn’t see any electric lights. The furniture and walls were unpainted wood. It was a real Chinese apartment in Taipei.
It was late in the afternoon by then. We stayed together when I got my belongings out of the hotel. We had supper together, and we went to the Army processing center. She sat very close to me in the cab. We didn’t talk much. I went back To Vietnam that evening.
Soon after I got back to Vietnam one of our Chinook helicopters crashed and burned. It had just refueled at the Company’s POL area near the perimeter. It was leaving the POL area at about 300-feet when it started to go down. The word was that a sniper from somebody’s window outside the perimeter had caused the crash. The pilot, co-pilot, crew chief, and the door gunner were killed. The pilot was my immediate boss at the Officers Club. He was the new Warrant Officer, and in the other seat was another new W-1 Warrant Officer who I didn’t know very well. All anyone ever said about him beside the fact he was dead was that he loved his wife. He talked about her all the time. The W-1 who was my boss wanted to do his time in the Army and get out. He told me he signed up to fly helicopters because he qualified. The 25th Infantry Division maintained the perimeter. After the crash they removed the position the sniper used. I could hear a track vehicle equipped with “twin-forties” banging away for a long time. Twin-forties were two mobile 40-millimeter cannons.
Before the W-1 Warrant Officer was killed he would have days when he didn’t fly. On some of those days he would schedule trips to Saigon to get officer club supplies. I would go with him so in the event he couldn’t go I would know how it was done. He would requisition a jeep. One of the sorties for a Chinook that day would be to make a trip to Saigon. The ramp at the aft end of the helicopter would lower, and the jeep would be driven on board. The helicopter would put us down at Tan Son Nhat near Saigon. We would drive around front, and wave off the pilots, they pulled pitch, and were gone.
The liquor supply was at Ton Son Nhat. We always went into the city of Saigon first, because we learned if we parked the jeep in Saigon, even for a moment, everything would be removed. Tire irons, jacks, anything that wasn’t bolted down would be taken. Saigon was a huge city with crowed streets.
The first time we were in Saigon we bought a sack of about a thousand coin size metal blanks to operate a juke box at our Officer’s Club. A Korean company run by Koreans supplied all the juke boxes in Vietnam. At another place we got out of the Jeep, and I put the bag of blanks in a compartment under the seat. When we came back to the jeep a few minutes later the bag was gone. They were gold in color. They had no inscription on them. They could only work in a machine of some sort that took quarters. The person who took them probably made earrings out of them and is rich and famous today.
A person who wanted to play songs on the juke box bought the blanks at the bar with MPC. About once every few weeks a Korean would come into our Officer’s Club. He unlocked the juke box to collect blanks and exchange records. He thought he was the only one who could open the thing, but he wasn’t. The CO opened it all the time by jerking up on the lid. He would then play any records he wanted for free. By the time I left a W-1 was authorized to open the juke box to play a record for free. The CO even told me to ask the man to get a new needle because he thought the one on the machine was worn out. Every time the Korean man came, unlocked the machine, and saw only four or five blanks he stood there looking severely puzzled. When I told him we need a new needle he looked at me in utter disbelief. It wasn’t my place to tell him we were getting into the machine all the time. The CO-operated like the NCO in basic training who told us he wanted us to be honest, but there was nothing wrong with a good plan.
Another time getting supplies in Saigon there was a Vietnamese man walking down the street with solid brass bells hanging from his shoulders. The bells rang as he walked. They were the same size, about 10 inches high and 10 inches wide at the bottom. We drove the jeep over to where he was, and I asked him how much he wanted for a bell. I gave him the money. It was heavy. I brought it home, and gave it to my parents. They used it as a doorbell. Now I have it in a building where my wife and I have a mailbox business.
When it was a doorbell a faded card next to it said please ring bell. Every year wasps made a nest up inside the bell. It unnerved most people when they rang the bell. They ran away fast as they could. Now it hangs from a long chain in the shop. No one rings it except me to hear it ring.
There was a creek that went through Tan Son Nhat. I was driving the jeep. We stopped and looked. It was muddy water that looked to be a foot deep. It would be a short cut to go across the stream. After going a few feet in the water the front wheels suddenly dropped like there was an under water ditch. The jeep couldn’t back-up. On the other side there was a crane with a boom long enough to reach across the water. I tried to fire it up. My plan was to lift the jeep out of the water. I couldn’t start it and it is a good thing I couldn’t. When I was fooling with the buttons inside the crane the W-1 was sitting in the jeep with his feet against the dashboard. The foot wells were under water. He looked like a General sitting in that jeep with sunglasses on his face. The sight of him in that jeep full of water, and me in that crane, made both of us laugh. Someone pulled us out, and the W-1 called a Chinook. Soon the Chinook arrived. The crew chief drove the Jeep inside, tied it down, and we flew back to Cu Chi.
The Executive Officer (XO) assigned to our company was Major in rank and he was responsible for the aircraft. How well he did his job depended on the number of aircraft that were available each day. Various parts on the helicopter had to be replaced after a certain number of hours. The helicopter wasn’t available to fly during that time.
When a new XO came to our unit he and the CO sat by themselves at the bar to talk in the middle of the afternoon. I was behind the bar. The new XO was concerned because very soon he knew he would have low aircraft availability. The former XO had made his work look good by having very high aircraft availability during his last few months. He accomplished this by staggering aircraft in such a way that scheduled maintenance would not be due while he was there. His record would show that when he was responsible many helicopters were available to fly missions each day, and as soon as he left there was low availability. On the surface the former XO record would show he had high aircraft availability compared to the new XO low availability. Battalion would then put a favorable report in the former XO personnel file increasing his chances of being promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
The new XO was concerned that Battalion would think he wasn’t doing his job. His aircraft availability numbers would be low. That afternoon at the bar the CO was being made aware of this situation.
During the former XO tour of duty there was a fight in the Officers’ Club between the CO and a husky American civilian who was assigned to the area by a company contracted by the U.S. Government to engineer, design, and build things. It wasn’t much of a fight. The civilian immediately went down on the floor, covered is face, and assumed a fetal position. He was crying.
It was just a matter of time before the CO got in a fight with him. All it took was a couple of drinks, and a couple of words. The place was not big enough for both of them. The civilian never came back.
The XO was laughing at the hulking civilian crying on the floor. The CO was trying to connect with a punch. I suppose there was a look of disgust on my face as I looked at the XO. For sure the civilian’s response was unusual, but for a high-ranking officer to laugh at that was more unusual. While the XO was busy laughing he glanced up off the floor at me, and then back down to the floor where the CO was still unsuccessfully trying to punch the civilian in the face. The XO eyes shot back up to mine, and for a second he stopped laughing like something else was in his mind. Then he looked back down and resumed laughing. After that day he made it very apparent he didn’t like me. At least once that I am aware of he tried to have the CO remove me, but it didn’t happen.
Earlier that year three lieutenants came into the Officers’ Club. It was when the 101st came to town, and those lieutenants were from that outfit. The 101st was at Cu Chi about a week, but their officers appeared at our club only once. They stood at the middle of the bar, and loudly had a good time like it was a holiday. Several other pilots from our unit were partying with them.
The bar didn’t go all the way across the room. At one end, four feet from the wall it went 90 degrees and extended toward the back wall. Between the wall and the outside of the bar there was a passage way to the storeroom behind the bar. On that end there were a few seats. The CO was in one of them talking to no one. From where he sat he could see the bar from the bartenders side. Often he looked long and hard at the lieutenants. It was obvious he didn’t like them being there in what he considered his Officers Club. They must have picked up on how the CO felt. They left. The CO was a Major.
Another time two of our pilots had the day off. They were sitting at the bar. It was late afternoon. They were the only ones there. They played worn out records on the jukebox. They talked, and complained how the CO took himself off flight status when there were hotter than usual Landing Zones (LZ’s).
The Chinook was a big cumbersome 5-million dollar helicopter. Compared to a Huey it was a sitting duck. Sorties for the Chinook didn’t require it to fly into hot LZ’s. So a LZ that is considered relatively routine to an infantryman might be a hot LZ as far as a Chinook driver is concerned. Over a one or two week period the Chinook sorties involved flying in and out of areas where it was highly possible that the helicopter or anyone in it would take a hit.
The W-3 Warrant Officer who first interviewed me at the officers club came in one afternoon after flying and belted down a shot of corn liquor. Then he did another one. He said a rifle bullet had come right up through the seat between his legs and ripped his pants. It was a bad day at the office for him. He looked down between his legs I suppose to see if the booze was running out.
In the mess hall that week I heard from a door gunner who manned an M-60 machine gun on the left side that a stray bullet hit his flak jacket. He said it hit hard, and if the Crew Chief wasn’t in his way on the other side he would have fallen out.
The Officer’s Club was air-conditioned. There was a self-contained refrigeration unit on the outside wall of the building. It was to be installed on a walk-in freezer, but with slight modifications it served well as an air conditioner.
The Officer’s Club was a small size club. The building was about 35 X 75 feet. On one side it had a screened in area 25-feet square. Not counting the screened in area, the club was divided into three rooms. One room had the bar and jukebox. It was about 10-feet deep, and the width of the building. The second room was an unfinished storeroom behind the bar. It was 8-feet deep, and it extended the width of the building also. The storeroom had an outside door that led to a bunker.
The third room was the largest area. It was separated from the bar by a wooden partition. On each side of the partition there was a wide floor to ceiling opening.
The floor had gray square linoleum tiles stuck to a concrete slab. The ceiling was 8 feet from the floor. It consisted of textured white pieces one-foot square. Above the ceiling thirty wood trusses held up the roof and the ceiling. The roof was sheet metal. It sloped down in two directions to the sides. There were no gutters.
The main entrance into the building was through the screened area. Then a second door led into the largest of the three rooms. The refrigeration unit that served as an air conditioner was attached to the wall at the far end of that room. I turned it on when I opened the club at 1400 (2 p.m.) hours and turned it off when I closed the club at 200 hours (2 am), seven days a week. Pilots who were there when I closed the place didn’t have to fly the next day.
Very soon after the air conditioner was functioning I realized cool air didn’t reach the bar area. I found enough 1″ X 12″ pine boards and fastened them together to make a square air duct. It began at the refrigeration unit. It went straight up from the source of cold air through the ceiling. It made a ninety-degree turn and extended practically the length of the building to a position over the bar where it made another ninety-degree turn back through the ceiling. Then the bar area got plenty of cool air.
A civilian technical representative (tech rep) who worked for the American Company that made our helicopters was assigned to our unit. His function was to help the helicopter maintenance people with problems they couldn’t solve. He was a familiar face in our Officers’ Club.
Shortly after the air conditioner was operational and the ductwork was completed he looked at the opening in the ceiling above the bar and asked me what it was. I said the bogeyman lived up there. He was standing at the bar with the battalion doctor who was a black man. When I said that the tech rep looked down into his beer like he was embarrassed. Then he looked at me and asked me what the bogeyman was. I walked over to where they were and for the first time thought maybe I didn’t know. I said from behind the bar the bogeyman is like Boo Radley in the book. I said when I was a child my uncle would tie-up me and my sister, and leave saying the bogeyman was going to get us. Then I told him what the opening in the ceiling really was.
After a while the doctor left and the Tec Rep called me over to where he was at the bar. He said the reason he questioned me the way he did was that he thought the bogeyman was another way of saying a black person. He said I shouldn’t say something like that in front of the doctor.
It was after that I got genital herpes although I didn’t know it by that name until years later. It was the result of my loose conduct in and around Saigon. I made several trips to Bien Hoa. The longest helicopter ride I ever made was to a place called Vung Tau, which really was by the sea. Several of us used to say “Cu Chi by the sea” because it rhymed, but in reality the sea was not even close. I was told Vung Tau was the most beautiful place in all Vietnam. In Vung Tau there was a great big sandy beach. The wide ocean was out front, and on land there were no tall buildings. It didn’t look like the modern world was there yet.
When I got genital herpes in Vietnam there was a small sore under the foreskin on my penis. I went to the infirmary to see the battalion doctor. He walked up, looked at it, and in the same moment, turned around, and walked away. He had his face turned up toward the ceiling. He didn’t say much of anything. He gave me some white colored ointment to put on the sore and I left.
Thereafter every three months or so I would get a sore in the same area. Then twenty-six years later when I had a near death motorcycle crash and was in the hospital three and a half months the herpes went away. That was five years ago. I haven’t had a herpes sore since. Recently I asked a doctor if there was a medical explanation. He said there was no medical explanation. I told him the length of the time I was in the hospital and the situation in general. I didn’t say I had learned to fly right since then. He said it probably didn’t reoccur because I had been through enough.
A few months earlier I asked another doctor who specializes in public health and communicable diseases that same question and she said she had never heard of that happening.
Right after I got back from R&R I became painfully aware I had gonorrhea. The cure I received then was a series of penicillin injections. The Government in Taiwan required the girls to go to a health facility every so often and get injections to prevent venereal disease. One apparently didn’t go.
I got gonorrhea once more in my life a year later in the United States. I never was around any prostitutes in this country. The girl I got it from was the last person I would think had that bug. The cure then was one big penicillin injection. The doctor asked me if I was in a marching band.
There were American nurses in Vietnam. They were treated very well by all the men folk in the area. I seldom saw them open any doors for themselves and they never stepped in any mud puddles. They, or any one of them, seldom came to the officers club. One time one nurse did. She was there and the CO instructed me to escort her to the officers’ latrine. I was to stand outside as a sort of sentry, and then when she had done her thing I was to walk her back to the Officer’s Club. After awhile I heard the door open and I started walking back. I couldn’t see her. It was night. We were on a boardwalk that was built on the mud between the officers’ hutches and the latrine. She knew my name and she said my name. I stopped and turned around and faced in the direction of her voice. She said it again and I could tell she was standing still. I said, what? And she said nothing. Then she said my name again like she might fall off the boardwalk. I went back to get her, and we marched to the officers club.
That night when I was talking to her from the other side of the bar she told me her name, and that her father was a car salesman in California. I wondered why she came to Vietnam, but I didn’t ask that question. I thought she should go back home as soon as possible. She didn’t seem very happy. She didn’t have a very high opinion of herself. She thought of herself as a living body. Nurses could leave when they wanted to leave.
Back in our sleeping area the other 36K20 person had a small plump pet dog. Another person who ate Maraschino Cherries with us had a dog the same size. He was in helicopter maintenance and slept in another building.
When the 36K20 person had night duty on the switchboard he slept during the day. I asked him why he taped up the dog’s legs and mouth and put him on a shelf. He replied that he wanted to get the dog on the same cycle as him. The dog was on the shelf while the 36K20 person was sleeping and it was with him when he had switchboard duty. As I was getting dressed one morning he was there. I said it was sick the way he treated that dog. I said there was enough sickness in the world without him having to add to it.
He taped up his dog awhile longer, but then he told me that he and the other person took their dogs to the perimeter and let them go. He said when the two dogs were a short distance away they looked back like they were going to return. At that point the person who slept in the other building grabbed the M-16 from the 36K20 person who was telling me this story and he started shooting at the two dogs. The dogs must have heard the bullets whizzing over their heads, because he said they turned and ran as fast as they could for cover.
Some of us had small electric fans beside our cots that we purchased from the PX. The fans blew air on us while we were sleeping. My friend, the same 36K20 person, called those fans matchbox fans. When I was unpacking my “whole baggage” in Cincinnati, Ohio I looked at the fan closer than usual and the words were written on the base of the fan, “Love get out of Vietnam.” I don’t know who wrote that or when, but there it was.
When it was my time to leave Vietnam we were sent to Saigon and crammed in a holding area or processing area. A sergeant explained to us the benefits available to us if we were being discharged from the army. One of the Teletype operators told me, “The only way to benefit from the Army is to get out of it.” The sergeant explained a piece of legislation passed by the United States government called the GI Bill. He said how it provided all sorts of educational benefits. Apparently my friend was right.
We were in the holding area for one night. It was like a jail with Constantine wire and high fences around the entire area. I suppose it was to prevent anyone from getting loose in town.
The next day we boarded an unmarked airplane that was fitted inside like a civilian passenger plane. It flew us home to the United States. The first stop was in Anchorage, Alaska. We went inside while the plane was being refueled. It was very late at night and there were some older ladies sitting at a table providing coffee to anyone and everyone as we came into the terminal from the plane. They were not government employees. We were going home from Vietnam and that was the first time we touched American soil. They were there to welcome us home, but everyone walked by with sleep in their eye. The ones who took some coffee didn’t even see them.
It reminded me of when I was in Vietnam. A grade school class from somewhere in the middle of the United States sent us a package containing things they thought we would need. One of the items was a can of Band-Aids. I carried one of those Band-Aids with me everywhere. If I got shot I was going to put the Band-Aid over the bullet hole. They must have been very sweet little children to send those things.
When I got back to the United States several of us found ourselves discharged from the Army, standing in a commercial airport waiting for airplanes traveling in different directions to take us home. I remember putting on my civilian clothes and how good it felt to be out of the Army now. All I had in the way of luggage was what we called an AWOL bag. When I was changing in the airport men’s room, my class A uniform wouldn’t fit in the little bag so I put it in the trash can. I was sure I was never going to wear it again in a hometown parade or anywhere. There was a high-ranking Army sergeant in the airport men’s room. I wondered if I was going to have to explain myself to him but he didn’t say anything to me. Then I called my parents to say I was in the United States and that my plane arrived in Cincinnati at such and such a time. My mother answered the phone and I could hear her crying. I wondered if she thought I was an anti-Communist Warrior.