Phiz; a story of Vietnam

Being in a war is a bad thing. Sometimes wars are fought for good reasons, at least most people believe that to be true, and being in them may sometimes be a necessity, but actually participating on a personal level in a war is always a very bad thing. I can testify to this fact based upon my own experience. Nearly two years of my life were spent in Vietnam and I can say with conviction that my life would not be diminished in the least if I had never set foot in that land. But there I was, and in the manner common to most people and virtually all nineteen year old American males I set out to make the best of it. Being an extrovert I chose the path of engaging in many friendships to dull the pain of being ten thousand miles from home and with people shooting at me.

It only took a short while for me to become a member of a group of friends. Hiawatha Hardison was my first, followed soon after by Jeff Murdy and Alex Viggiani. We hung together for a while, but as people came and went by means natural and unnatural a new and more permanent core of friends was formed. Most of us had nicknames, as is common when guys live together. Jeff Murdy was called “Murds”, or “Magical Mystery Murds”.  Rex Randolph was known only as “Chief”.  Why?  I don’t know. Gary Mercer was “The Perch”, or Strawberry Perch”, an allusion to the Beatles’ song “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Perch was a very psychedelic guy before most of us had heard of psychedelic. There was also “Oz”, “Big Plow”, and “Lumberjack.”  I was called “Creeper”, and another of our group, Ray Cloud, was full-blood Cherokee and so we called him “Chief” too, which showed a lamentable lack of imagination on our part. The weird thing is that we never confused Rex with Ray. It was sort of like a”my other brother Darryl” thing.

We all spent a good deal of time together and did what so many soldiers did in that war when they were not on duty; we drank beer, listened to what music we could get, smoked a great deal of the native herb, and simply hung out and talked. Many interesting stories could be told about us sitting around telling those stories. I now propose to tell a few.

One of my favorite stories that was told to me by Chief. You’ll have to figure out which one for yourself. We were drinking some beer and sharing a few doobies on a dark hillside behind our unit area telling stories about where we came from and what we wanted to do when we returned to “The Real World”, as we used to refer to the United States of America and just about anywhere else that wasn’t Vietnam. Concerning most of those stories told that night I remember nothing, but in the course of the evening Chief shared with me one event in his life and it was such a singular story that it has stayed with me these forty five years.

Chief was a young man from Oklahoma who enlisted in the Army shortly after he turned eighteen years old. Native Americans have few reasons to fight and die for the United States but their warrior traditions prompt many to enlist and serve with peculiar distinction. Chief said he didn’t enlist because he was an American; he did so because he was a warrior.  Anyway, shortly before he turned eighteen he was at a ceremony attended by a small number of men in a tipi out on the plains. There was a small fire (white men build large fires and sit far from them, Cherokee build small fires and sit close, he told me) and the night was filled with stories and drumming and song. In the middle of the ceremony, according to Chief, a tiny buffalo no higher than perhaps twelve inches at the shoulder ran in through the opening of the tipi. The buffalo made an unspecified number of circuits around the inside of the tipi and then ran back outside. Chief said that all of the men in the tipi who had their eyes open followed the course of this tiny buffalo, and he felt that those with eyes closed who were singing and/or praying were equally aware of it’s presence. Nobody spoke of this after the ceremony, and Chief believed that if he survived the war and returned to Oklahoma he might then hear more about what that meant.

Retelling the story stirred some sort of emotion within The Chief because he went back into the battalion area, returned with an empty Jerry can and began to softly drum on it with the palms of his hands and sing softly in the familiar vocalizations common to Native Americans. Being a friend who knew that he had just been told something that most White guys didn’t get to hear, and being almost hypnotized by the beauty of his soft, heartfelt chant, and also being stoned to the gills, I just sat there and took in the whole picture.

I have since thought often about Chief’s story. Chief was a rational guy.  He had no fear of black cats or walking under ladders. He had a medicine pouch but he put a great deal more trust in a couple of thicknesses of sandbags to stop a high-velocity bullet or schrapnel from a mortar bomb or Chinese rocket. Chief didn’t believe in fairy tales. He also did not doubt in the least that a tiny buffalo entered a tipi and ran around it a few times before exiting back into the Oklahoma night, and that the older men knew what that meant. Chief did survive the war and, assuming that he made it back to Oklahoma, I believe that he was told the meaning of that visitation. I hope that if I should ever meet Chief again in this life or the next he shares that story with me, but I will understand if he doesn’t.

There were also stories which were made while we were there in Vietnam, and one of my favorites of that category concerns the arrival in-country of Young Bob Wilson. His name really was Bob Wilson, and he really was very young in more ways than just age. Bob’s innocence and naivete appealed to us all and we took him into our circle immediately.  One evening within days of Young Bob Wilson’s arrival we had the opportunity to welcome him properly to Vietnam. The story goes like this.

On this particular evening we were engaged in our favorite pastime; sitting on that hill behind our battalion area drinking beer and smoking dope and telling stories. Young Bob Wilson, being a new guy and unaccustomed to the strength of the local herb that we were smoking, was very nearly hallucinating. As the sun began to sink into the green mass of the jungle and the sky began to turn to dusk, the boys of the 199th Infantry began to lob some illumination flares into the darkening sky over the wire on our perimeter. They did this randomly in order to keep any Viet Cong who might be thinking of sneaking in and doing mischief on their toes. On this evening there were a few more flares than usual, but that might have been because the 199th picked up a few new guys of their own, or they may have simply been bored. In any case, after a dozen or so had gone up Young Bob Wilson asked nobody in particular “does this happen all of the time”? One smart aleck of the bunch replied “No, that’s more than I’ve seen since the Tet Offensive.”  “Really?” gulped Young Bob Wilson with a good deal more than a hint of concern in his voice.

It was as if the canine part of each of our brains were wired together at that moment in time, and somebody had thrown a bowl of raw meat in front of us. We were suddenly tuned into one thought and one purpose.  One after another we declared that we had never seen so many flares, and told stories of mortar and rocket barrages followed by human wave assaults that were either stopped at the wire surrounding our battalion area, or resulted in hand-to-hand combat from mess hall to latrine to the very footlockers at the end of our bunks. You could see Young Bob Wilson’s complexion blanch more and more as this massive shipment of bullshit was run past him with deliveries that should have earned us all Oscars. The pièce de résistance came from a source which none of us could have predicted or planned if we had wanted to.

The evening meal had been consumed and it was time for the K.P. detail to begin cleaning up. All of the pots, pans, dishes and implements of consumption were cleaned in hot water, and this hot water was obtained by submerging heaters into fifty-five gallon drums filled with water.  These heaters had a fire chamber into which some fuel, probably diesel, was dripped. This created a continuous roaring fire that quickly heated the water. Our mess hall had probably twenty of these stoves adjacent to the building under a tin roof which kept the rain off the mess crew. The metal chimneys of these stoves ran up through the tin roof. In order to light the heaters one must start the drip, step back, and throw a lighted match into the fire chamber. The resultant ignition would produce a ‘whoomp’ and a flash of flame and smoke that would belch up out of the metal chimneys.  Young Bob Wilson was sitting on that hill, watching those flares, listening to our crap with visions of the Battle of the Bulge running through his young stoned head, when one by one those stoves began to ignite with their ‘whoomps’ and gouts of fire and smoke erupting into the evening air as if the exhaust pipes of hell had been opened.

“Incoming” we all shrieked, just as if we had rehearsed it. We all leaped to our feet (which was quite an accomplishment when you consider the level of self-medicating that we had indulged in) and a couple of the guys yelled “get to the bunker.”  We all began to run but after a few steps we pulled up and watched as the barely discernible backside of of the olive drab-clad  Young Bob Wilson disappeared into the evening gloom of Camp Camelot, Long Binh, Republic of Vietnam, on what was an otherwise very peaceful and uneventful night.

It was reported that Young Bob Wilson sat alone in a bunker for almost an hour until a guy from H&H Company went in asked him what the hell he was doing. After explaining that he was waiting for the “all clear” and that the rest of his party didn’t make it off of the hill in the attack, the H&H guy berated Young Bob Wilson for being a New Guy (he actually threw in an additional adjective which I will leave out) and an idiot, which was traditional, while the rest of us sat on the hilside and had a robust laugh at Young Bob Wilson’s expense. We then returned to telling stories about how cool we had been before we found ourselves at the tender mercy of the U.S. Army and how cool we were going to be once we returned home.  Young Bob Wilson was warmly embraced, back-slapped, and properly intoxicated -on the house- the next day to let him know that he was fully accepted,  and he and I had a year-long friendship after that.

One story that I remember fills me with some melancholy however, and that is the story of Phiz. Warren Pfister was from rural Iowa. His family lived on a farm in close proximity to a small town, one of the many towns of two hundred or so people which dot the Midwest. We loved it when his family would send him treats. Many of us would receive those boxes of goodies from our families which we called “care packages”, but we would especially like those that came to Phiz because of the exceptionally high quality of the goodies contained therein. There were sausages, cheeses, crackers, dried fruits and things that the rest of us never got. My canned tuna, Campbell’s chicken and rice soup and potted meat really never got the boys too excited, but a package from Iowa was sure to get a rumble of expectation spreading throughout the group.

Phiz was a little older than most of us. I think that he was twenty five or six, but I am not sure. He was also a melancholy sort of guy by nature.  Phiz was fun to be with because, among other reasons, he told stories of the farm and the land and small town America that many of us urban dwellers had no experience with at all. We were a very diverse group and enjoyed hearing about the lives of each other on farms and in towns and cities, ghettos and barrios and reservations. If the rest of the world could achieve the acceptance and community that we did in that place there would be a lot less grief. Funny how this community feeling grew up in the middle of a war, the most irrational and violent of possible environments, but there it is. Phiz would frequently retire into a quiet place where we could not follow and we knew in those times to let him be by himself. He would emerge when he chose to and not before.

Phiz and I became good friends, possibly because I was one of the less boisterous of the bunch and had a penchant for reading. Phiz also read and we would share books. He liked poetry particularly and I preferred history, so we would trade books and get greater insight into each other’s lives than was common with the rest of the guys.

“Phiz,” I asked one day when we were both faking being sick and stayed back from the day’s regular duties, “what you gonna do when you check out on us?” Phiz only had a couple of weeks left before cycling back to the U.S. and a little later being discharged from the Army. We were both sitting in lawn chairs on a platform about twelve feet high upon which sat the five hundred gallon wood and rubber water tank that provided water for our showers. This gave us a beautiful view of the jungle which stretched off to the north and the flat delta of the Mekong River which retreated into the southern horizon. This also made us excellent targets for any snipers who thought it worthwhile to risk their lives to pick off two of the most useless soldiers in the U.S. Army, but we didn’t think too much about that. Phiz must have been more than usually convivial that day because he answered me.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to be really happy, Creeper, here or back there” he replied. “I get to feeling good about myself and life and all but then this awful weight comes down on me that tells me I’m just fooling myself and trying to dodge the train that’s going to hit me no matter how hard I try to avoid it.” “Wow, really?” I asked with my usual absence of depth.  “Why do you feel like that?  We all have crap that’s happened to us but you just get up and move on.”  “I wish it was that easy for me” he answered, “but it just isn’t.  You see, the thing that I want most is to be married and have a family, but I don’t believe that I can ever do that”.  “Why not?” I asked. “I am really shy in spite of all the bullshit stories that I tell about my prowess with the ladies but I am pretty sure that there’s a girl for me back in the world if I just look hard enough and wait long enough.” I felt pretty good about the quality of my reasoned argument.  “I’ve tried a couple of times” Phiz replied, “but it just seems like there is something about me that girls can’t respect. I don’t think that trying one after the other is going to bring some magical change that will suddenly make me the man of some girl’s dreams. Sooner or later the whole damn thing will fall apart and I will just be left feeling lousy and like a loser again.” “Jeez, Phiz, I don’t think you have been at this long enough to know that. What are you, twenty-five or something?  You haven’t given this thing enough time.” Suddenly, twenty years old and a couple of beers down the hatch and I was seeing myself as some kind of Sigmund Freud.  “How the hell can you know that you can’t find the right girl?” Phiz sat silently in his chair for a while, finishing his beer and opening another while he thought, and then told me his story.

When he was sixteen Phiz had his first girlfriend. Actually, she was the first girl who had responded to him in any way at all, and he was excited that he had broken the ice. They had only gone out for burgers and a movie or two and had made out in the back seat of his car once or twice before he ran into her at a party in town. “She was there with another guy” Phiz told me. “Well, he could have been a friend or a relative” I offered lamely. “No, she was WITH another guy. If you’d have rolled a marble down either one’s spine it would have rolled down the same butt crack.” “Well, I think that we’ve all had some of that” I suggested, when in fact I didn’t know jack about such things. “There’s always another.”  “There was” Phiz said almost dreamily, as if he was looking at someone or someplace other than the Vietnamese countryside. “There was Wanda”.

Phiz had met Wanda a year later and they had hit it off very well.  Dinner out and movies, evenings spent with each other’s families, and time alone where they would talk about plans for a home and family and trips to the Great Lakes and maybe even California sometime. “Sounds promising to me” I said, coming as I did from California and preparing myself to tell him of some good places to visit. “But one night I was working on a car with a friend of mine and he had a cousin visiting from the next town over. We just turned wrenches and drank a couple of beers and talked like guys do. I mentioned Wanda and this guy, Ted was his name I think, said ‘is that Wanda Thurston?'” “It is” I answered, prepared to accept his glowing approval of the delight of my heart.

“I hate to say this man, and don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean any harm. I just think that you should know about this. Wanda Thurston has been hanging around with a guy over in Abbotsville, and they are a whole lot more than friends.” “I declared that this was not possible and I was inclined to punch the bastard in the head, but he described Wanda in such a way that I could not deny that we were speaking of the same person.  Also, there was such an obvious reluctance and sympathy in his speech that I finally decided that he must be telling the truth.” “And he was?” I asked.  “Yes, Wanda admitted it readily when I confronted her.  She wasn’t nasty about it; she just said that her dreams didn’t seem to include me anymore, so she was looking for her future somewhere else.”

Phiz sat silent for a while, staring off towards the place where a hill used to be. A battalion-sized unit of North Vietnamese regulars had dug into that hill during the Tet Offensive and raised a lot of hell us until the 199th Infantry boys, with support by the big, slow gunships with three miniguns on the side, dug them out of that hill one bloody foxhole at a time. It was not pretty to watch but I am eternally grateful that those guys were on that particular detail and not me! After it was over the 87th Engineers went to that hill with their heavy equipment and spread it truckload by truckload over the Mekong Delta. I don’t know if that was a defensive move or if they were just pissed off at that hill. Either way, Phiz just sat there for a while gazing off where the hill used to be.

While Phiz nursed his thoughts in silence my own thoughts began to drift to other places but suddenly it struck me:  one day recently when Phiz had received a care package the Strawberry Perch told me he had seen a note and a picture. Perch said that it had come from Phiz’s wife.

“Phiz, somebody said that you already have a wife” I said.  Phiz continued to look over the Delta to the south where the hill had once been, then got up, told me to stay put, and climbed down the ladder from the tower platform and disappeared into the hut in which we bunked. He emerged a short while later carrying an envelope. As soon as Phiz sat back into his lawn chair, opened yet another warm beer and lit a joint he handed me the envelope. I saw that it came from a “Mrs. W. Pfister” and had been posted two weeks ago, which meant that this was still fresh news for Phiz. I just stared at the envelope and at Phiz for a moment. Phiz exhaled a cloud of smoke, took a swig of warm beer and grunted “read it.”

The letter began “Dear Warren”, and went on to detail how she had met her ‘soul mate’, or something like that,  who was even now living in their house, and how she hoped Warren would stay in the military or find a girl somewhere else and move in with her or basically do anything except come back to Iowa. While that was being worked out she would continue living in the house that was being paid for out of Phiz’s Specialist Fourth Class salary (with combat pay). “She didn’t say that it would work out best if I got killed over here so she could get a nice insurance settlement, but she might as well have said it” said Phiz, barely above a whisper.

I had seen break-ups between boys and girls ‘going steady’ before, but I had never witnessed anything like this. For probably the first time in my life I was smart enough to realize that I didn’t have one appropriate word to say and inexplicably held my tongue.  I took a hit off of the doobie that Phiz had been bogarting, opened my own next beer, and sat there in silence. After a while I asked “are you gonna kick his ass?”

“Nah, I know what he’s getting.  I can’t do worse to him than that.”

“Well, at least are you going to kick her out of the house? You’re going to get a divorce, aren’t you”

Phiz thought about my question, and probably not for the first time. “No, I don’t think so.”  I have grounds, I know, but I just personally hate divorce.  She’ll probably cut me loose soon enough anyway, because I think that I am going to get the spousal allowance cut to the least the Army will allow, then when I get out that will dry up too if she hasn’t pursued a divorce already. I will find a small hole somewhere and crawl into it, and try to get on with life as best I can. That’s why my dream of a family won’t happen.  At least part of the reason why. Mostly it just seems like I can’t make a good relationship with a girl happen no matter what I do. Besides, if she gets lazy or whatever, I will maybe continue to be married to this person whom I hope to never see again. It just doesn’t exactly make for a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ ending, does it?”

I sat in my lawn chair under the warm Vietnam sun, equally stunned by the story I had just heard and the Cambodian redleaf weed that we were smoking. I spluttered and fumed a bit over the injustice of it all but I could tell that Phiz didn’t want to talk anymore, so we just sat side by side on that water tower and watched the nothingness that was happening under the late morning sky.

After a while we descended from the water tower and returned to our bunks where we were supposed to be recovering from our bogus illnesses.  I read a little and daydreamed a lot, and around seven in the evening the rest of the guys returned from duty and the nightly party began in earnest.  Phiz was his usual self and no mention was made of our conversation to anyone.

It remained that way for the short while that Phiz remained in-country, and after dodging a few more bullets he climbed onto a plane to some fort somewhere in the U.S. of A., where after completing his three years he was discharged honorably from the Army. Phiz sent me a few letters over the next couple of years. They were postmarked from Grand Junction, Colorado, but Phiz actually lived in one of the smaller communities nearby. Phiz did plumbing, painting, carpentry, piano tuning, brain surgery; in short, anything he had to do to make a living. He said that he was attending a little country church, had quit smoking pot but brewed his own beer (which was still illegal back then), and was living a reasonably happy life with a doberman pincer and a collie and a couple of cats.

I lost contact with Phiz in the mid 1970’s when I lost contact with most of the third planet from the sun, and I sometimes wonder how he has fared these many years.  I do believe that if I ever see him he will be living alone but for a few dogs and cats, and I don’t know if that would be a happy or a sad thing.  What I do know however is that I wish my brother the very best in life.

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