There are a great many things that are bad about being a soldier in a war. In most cases, if you are a soldier in the United States Army it means that you are far away from home. It also means that you have left the familiar way of life in which you grew up and are now in a regimented society where the rules, the hierarchies and even the logic are completely different from anything that you ever knew before. The training which you have to undergo, at least at the time when I experienced it, included being run and exercised beyond exhaustion, made to crawl in mud with live machine gun fire going over your head, gassed with something like tear gas on steroids and made to remove your gas mask just to prove to you that it works, and made to eat Army chow. In two month’s time the sanity of civilian life is just a memory. All of that is nothing however compared with the knowledge that somebody on the other side is trying to seriously injure or kill you.
Death is a fact of life (is that a logical absurdity?) in a war zone, and different people will deal with that fact in different ways. For me, personally, I hated the thought that the bullet which would get me travels faster than sound, so I would have no warning of it’s approach. I would be just walking along minding my own business, albeit in a uniform and possibly carrying a weapon in somebody else’s country, and BAM! It’s lights out. That very real possibility was extremely creepy to me so I exercised my best available option and refused to think about it. I have always been good at avoiding unpleasant realities and this talent served me well for nearly two years in Vietnam.
Sadly though, in war unpleasant possibilities often become realities. People die in wars, and efforts to glamorize wars gloss over the fact that death is an ugly thing which, in my Christian worldview, is not natural at all but is a corruption of what ought to be. The ways that a soldier can die are many but the effect is the same: KIA, or Killed In Action. When that unhappy event takes place the soldier’s Commanding Officer, or C.O., must perform the unenviable task of writing the letter to the family of the deceased: “Dear Mr. and Mrs Smith; I regret to inform you that your son, Clarence, was killed in action on June 26, 1968.” The letter usually goes on to describe how their son was performing a brave or even heroic act when he met his end, in the hope that this message will somehow help the parents to deal with the fact that their son will never walk, roll, or even be carried alive into their home again.
Most of the time these letters are true. A soldier performing his or her duties in battle is brave. Period. And many times heroic, almost superhuman, feats of courage are performed. Many times, however, things are not exactly as the C.O. might describe. I doubt that anyone ever received a letter saying “Your son Seymour was killed when a mortar round landed on the latrine that he was using”, or “Jeffrey died when he ran over a land mine while driving the jeep he had hot wired so that he could drive AWOL into a village and get laid”. Trust me, this happened. Also never mentioned is when the unfortunate demise came as a result of what is called ‘friendly fire’. “I’m sorry to inform you that your son Gregory was killed by fire from Company B of Third Battalion. We cannot determine who pulled the trigger, but the entire company will be given a month’s latrine duty (immortalized by the now-familiar description of ‘shit detail’)”.
All of these realities were the stuff of our daily lives, and like soldiers everywhere we made light of them to help us deal with them. There were said to be tigers roaming in the jungles of Vietnam when I was there, although nobody I knew ever saw one, and so we came up with our own cause of death: EIA, or Eaten In Action. We often laughed about how a C.O. would go about explaining that one. In my own experience I rarely came close to being a KIA, an MIA (Missing In Action), or and EIA. On various occasions I learned to recognize the sound of steel jacketed lead flying over my head and the ‘crump’ of rockets, grenades and mortars going off nearby, but my closest encounters with being a bad day for my C.O. lay in another direction; the days that I almost became SBIA AND KIFO.
I spent a large part of my time in Vietnam working at a port on the Saigon River. We would unload big ocean going vessels as well as Navy LST’s and barges, stash all of the goodies that they carried in warehouses and yards, and then backload those vessels with blown up equipment destined to be shipped to Japan to be returned to the United States as Toyotas and Datsuns. When containers, either full or empty, were replaced in the holds of ships they would be lashed together with large pieces of wood between them to keep them from rolling around. These large pieces of wood were called dunnage, and they were stacked, until used, in what was appropriately called the dunnage yard.
I worked the 7 PM TO 7 am shift in that yard towards the end of my tour, and it was a job well suited for me because I basically had nothing to do. When ships would come into port and were unloaded the dunnage would be stacked in some convenient part of the yard, and when dunnage was needed to lash together containers for some outgoing cargo a gang of laborers would come and load what was needed onto a truck to carry it away. My participation in this process was nearly zero, which neatly matched my inclinations and abilities.
My lack of input was not the only thing that I loved about duty in the dunnage yard. Our port on the Saigon River was in a very flat part of the real estate of Vietnam. The Mekong Delta is flat as a board, and the myriad streams, rivulets, canals, sloughs and such are like heaven for the mosquitos which make up about eighty five percent of the animal protein in that corner of the world. That fact made the Delta hell for everything and everyone else. The trick to finding some relief from that diabolical life form was to to gain some altitude to where there was some kind of breeze. The mosquitos were usually bloated from feasting on anything that drew breath and could not fly well with their delicate wings. A perch in the breeze was my best shot at escaping the persistent proboscises of that devilish hoard. I found that perch up on the highest part of a pile of wood in the dunnage yard.
Of course, my open perch up on that stack of wood had the decided disadvantage of making me an excellent target for any bored Viet Cong who might think it worth his while to come close enough to take a pot shot at me, so I limited my use of the woodpile to late afternoon and evening. Almost as welcome as the breeze was the fact that that I could see anyone coming from a good distance away, and if I happened to be smoking some of the almost hallucinogenic native flora I would be aware of an unwanted visitor in plenty of time to stash my bag in some crevasse in the pile and pretend that I was counting boards or something equally unlikely and unconvincing.
It was on my much loved pile of dunnage that one night I almost became SBIA. Be patient, I will share the meaning of that collection of letters shortly. This particular night stands out for two reasons. The first is that it was the first time that I heard in-a-gadda-da-vida. One evening each week the Armed Forces Radio would produce a half hour or hour, I can’t really remember which, of real rock and roll such as was being heard in the States. We would read about bands such as Cream, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix in month-old copies of Newsweek, but the only chance to actually hear them was on the Sergeant Pepper Show. On this evening I was perched on my pile, comfortably mellow from the effects of one or two ‘Saigon Bombers’ as we called the pre-rolled joints that we bought, and listening to the radio program. That song by Iron Butterfly came on and I felt like I was transported far away from the steaming evening in that desperately unhappy place. I sat there in the dark for quite a while after the song was finished, probably smoking another bomber (which we smoked like cigarettes) until the approaching lights of a work crew announced the need for some dunnage to be loaded up and removed to the dockside.
I quitted my post and returned to the shack where I would find the perfunctory paperwork which would need to be filled out. While I was placing a few forms in a clipboard I heard some frantic shouts followed by a general commotion, and finally a couple of gunshots. My first impulse was to hit the deck which I did. The continued voices roused my curiosity however and I peeked around the doorframe to see that the men were milling about with flashlights while more men were running in our direction. Always ready for diversion, I arose and proceeded to the gathering of men to see what was going on.
When I got there I slipped through the ring of excited men and saw at once what the commotion was about. Lying at the food of my pile of wood was the freshly killed body of a king cobra that was nearly eight feet long. When quizzed as to where the shake had been discovered, one of the men pointed to a place no more than a half dozen feet from where I had been sitting. It was a very strange and disconcerting thing to look at the body of the snake that could have ended my life with a quick strike and a bite if I had reached my hand down to hide my stash of weed or even if I had placed my radio on my right side rather than my left and then reached for it when I got up to leave. I sometimes remember that night and wonder what my C.O. would have said in his letter to my parents. “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Durden; I regret to inform you that your son, while bravely performing heroic duty in the dunnage yard, was Snake Bitten In Action”.
I was given yet another opportunity to test the creative writing skills of my C.O. while working at the port. One of the Viet Cong’s favorite amusements was to send a lone rocket propelled grenade or mortar round into the port’s perimeter, partly to see if they could cause a little damage but mostly to see us fall out with our weapons pointed into the darkness from which no assault would ever come. Charlie, I am certain, would sit out there and laugh while we would lay there on concrete, in mud, or vermin infested bunkers for an hour or two before going back to the job of bringing in the river of supplies needed by the US. and allied forces fighting in Vietnam.
One particular night Charlie treated us to this form of entertainment and it had some unexpected results. But first a little background about the rodents of Vietnam. There are mice and rats in Vietnam in such profusion that they make up most of the remaining fifteen percent of animal protein in that part of the country that is not mosquito. This fact led us to to try multiple means of pest control. In the aluminum structures which we called ‘hooches’ and lived in at Long Binh we had mice. We rarely saw them, but we could not afford to leave out any kind of food items, especially the delicacies which we received in care packages from our families back home, for fear of losing anything which could be accessed by gnawing, and I mean through paper, cardboard, or even wooden footlockers. When they crawled up into the insulation in the roof where we hid our Saigon bombers and ate the whole stash, leaving random bits of weed infused with mouse droppings, we had had enough. Chief, the leader of our gang of misfits, went to a Vietnamese woman who was a part of the day laborers whom the camp leadership would allow on the grounds during the daytime to the menial labor that we would otherwise have to perform. “Mama-san” he said, “GI got numba 10 problem. Beaucoup mice run all over, alla time eat GI’s food. What we do?” Mama-san said something that I didn’t follow. Chief seemed satisfied however, and next day I found out why. Mama-san handed Chief a sack that sort of moved and Chief passed Mama-san a wad of bills. We went into the shade of the hooch and opened the sack. Out slithered a boa constrictor, or something that looked just like one, and slid silently under a bunk. A few guys jumped back but the Chief reassured us that the snake was the answer to our problem
It turned out that indeed it was. The rodent population plunged in our hooch and seemed to increase in everyone else’s. There were still apparently enough mice that didn’t get the message however, for that snake hung around our hooch for most of the rest of the time that I was in Vietnam. The only negative thing was the occasional night when I would return to the hooch well lit up after a few hours at the enlisted men’s club and pull back my blanket, only to find our snake curled up and sleeping off a meal. It takes a while to get used to a thing like that. At such times I would carefully lift the snake out of my bunk and down to the concrete floor, inspect my bunk for any covert snake turds, and then crawl into bed to enjoy a rodent-free evening’s rest.
At the port we had a much bigger problem. The rats that dwelled along the river and amongst our yards, warehouses, admin buildings and mess hall, were bigger than cats. These beasts would not relish a direct engagement with a fully grown American soldier, but they were a frightening thing to come upon in the dark and could be quite fierce when cornered. The answer to these creatures presented itself in the form of a terrier which some G.I. probably rescued from the kitchen of a Saigon restaurant.
That dog was a brutal, efficient killer; sort of the Great White Shark of ratdom. It was a thing of beauty when Cujo (not his real name, but you get the picture) zeroed in on a victim. With the silence and speed of a cobra he would close in on a rat, and then with an explosion of snarling and shaking the rat would fly into the air, twisting and tumbling end over end, only to land in the death-dealing jaws that awaited him on the ground. I don’t recall that the rat population declined at all, but I will be eternally grateful for the hours of entertainment I received watching that mutt deal out vengence to our furry, flea-bitten, disease carrying, very large mutant rodents.
Which brings me to one particular night at the port. We had received a few desultory rounds of small arms fire that evening which made everyone edgy, and then a rocket propelled grenade slammed into a sandbagged wall to the right of our main gate. This resulted in our usual ballet of grabbing our weapons and taking up defensive positions. My unit was assigned to a particularly wet and unsavory part of the port along the riverbank near the barge landing. We knew the drill and waited in the dark for the all-clear to be given. Going against rules, some of the guys lit cigarettes and cupped them in their hands the way that soldiers do to make as little light as possible. All was calm, even boring, until a small flurry of squeaking brought pandemonium upon us.
I do not know what spooked that massive river rat. I have trouble believing that anything smaller than a Sherman tank could do that job. Something did, however, and we soon had a huge, beady-eyed, squeaking ratasaurus scrabbling across our legs as we lay in the wet dirt. This was the last straw that broke Ted Ruczinko. Ted was one of our group and we knew that he feared the rats like I fear spiders, or worse. Ted loved the dog and the snake like two wives, but on this night neither were there to save him. Perhaps it was the strain of the alert as well; I don’t know. We only had one major assault on our port in my two years there, but the random shots and explosions, along with the occasional casualty, may have built up in Ted. What I do know is that Ted well and truly lost it it when that rat scrambled across the backs of his legs right up by his jewels.
Ted bellowed out a curse and jumped to his feet, and then began to cut loose with his rifle at that rodent. We wouldn’t have minded so much if the rat wasn’t still running across our own legs. With howls and curses, those of us in the firing line jumped to our own feet to get out of the barrage. Two guys behind Ted rose up and tackled him, holding him on the ground until his thrashing and swearing had died down to shaking and sobs. We took stock and were amazed to find that nobody was hit by Ted, and we could not explain that then nor can I explain it now. Ted poured out almost a full clip missing the rat and, more to the point, missing us. We later forgave Ted, but thereafter he was instructed to retreat to a bunker the next time that any kind of alert was called.
I am once again forced to wonder how our C.O. would ‘splain that one to grieving parents. “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Croy; I regret to inform you that your son, Leroy, was Killed In Freak Out while bravely defending a mudflat from an assault by rats”.