One of the most interesting characters that I had the opportunity of serving with in the military was Chris Burnett. Chris was either nineteen or early twenty-something, like all of the rest of us, and was one of the most easy-going fellows that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. I don’t believe that Chris had any enemies, at least not among the ranks of common soldiers, and he seemed to do his job well enough for the majority of his year in Vietnam to escape any attention of his officers or NCO’s. Chris lived to enjoy life, and being in a war and in the crazy, regimented environment of the U.S. Army did not seem to make much of a difference to him. I sometimes thought that Chris acted as if he had never really left his civilian life at all; that the olive drab fatigues and mess hall food and occasional bullets and rockets were only an aberration which would soon pass behind him and allow him to get on more fully with what he did best, which was living and enjoying life.
I met Chris soon after he arrived in-country. The GI’s and I had established a platform atop a water tower where we could spread out our lawn chairs and bask in the Vietnamese sun when we were not working at the port some twenty miles distant on the Saigon River. I ascended the ladder to our outpost in the sun on my day off and found Chris sitting there already with a cooler filled with ice and beer and reading Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”. I did not expect to see anyone on our water tower reading poetry, and nodded in his direction as I set up my own chair and opened one of Bruce Catton’s many books on the American Civil War. It didn’t take but a few minutes before we were chatting like old friends and discussing books we had read and interests we would pursue when we returned to the ‘real world’.
That evening I introduced Chris to the rest of my gang of friends when they returned from working on the docks, and after the obligatory question “Are you CID?” (Criminal Investigation Division: the branch of the Army devoted to stamping out pot smoking threats to the military establishment. We believed that if they answered that question in the negative we were safe from any bust that they could put on us. This was probably not true, but it is what we all believed), we all settled in to party and get high and do all of the coping stuff that we did while we were ‘over there’.
Chris was one of the more decent guys in our group and was always careful to be mindful of the feelings of others, especially the Vietnamese who’s country we were ‘guests’ in. Such consideration was rare, and many of the GI’s would be dismissive or openly hostile to any and all Vietnamese, from the men who burned the stuff from our latrines to the prostitutes who’s services they availed themselves of when they managed to get to Bien Hoa or Saigon. This attitude made me uncomfortable but it just made Chris mad. On his days off Chris would sit and chat with the female workers who would pick up and return our laundry, shine our boots, and generally clean up our bunk houses, or hooches as we called them, while the rest of us were at work at the docks. Chris was always kind, kidding with the ladies and talking with them about their lives and about his own as if they were old neighbors. The Vietnamese men who worked in the mess hall or maintained the grounds in our battalion area didn’t talk with anyone very much, either due to caution or because they were Viet Cong and would be throwing mortars at us that evening. We couldn’t be sure. Anyway, Chris seemed to be only dimly aware that there was a war going on; everyone was his friend.
Don’t get the impression from what you have already read that Chris was a monk or a saint however. Chris was a young man who was placed in an environment where many of the social constraints on life in the U.S. had been thrown out of the window. He was as likely to sneak away into town and purchase an evening with a lady as the next guy, and Chris was sneaky enough to do this more than most and still not be noticed by anyone who cared. The difference between Chris and others who did the same was that Chris managed to retain some sense of propriety about this business as is illustrated in the following case.
Several of us were in Saigon one evening, having a few Tiger beers before we returned to the docks where we would stay that evening. We were not supposed to be in Saigon in the first place, but that is meat for another story. Chris was drinking beer with the rest of us but a very pretty bar maid had attracted his attention and he began to buy her small glasses of what was little more than water which we called Saigon Tea. This was the accepted manner in which one secured the favors of the lady in question. We were in a very high class joint with lots of officers and civilian contractors present, so a common soldier stood little chance of making headway in this environment. Chris was persistent however, and after dropping what must have been nearly $200 on beer and Saigon Teas the lady led Chris outside, flagged a man on a motorcycle, gave him an address, and sent Chris off to await her arrival.
We were all extremely nervous about this. We didn’t patronize this bar often and did not really know anyone there. The man piloting the motorcycle with a grinning Chris on the back through the darkened streets and alleys of Saigon could have been Ho Chi Minh’s nephew for all we knew. We didn’t know whether to admire Chris’ guts or be in awe of his idiocy, but nobody intervened when he climbed onto the bike and disappeared into the gloom. We returned to the docks unsure if we would ever see Chris alive again.
Indeed we did see Chris again. He showed up for breakfast at the mess hall on the port with a nasty hangover and the appetite of a much larger man. “So, how’d it go?” we asked “Well”, Chris began, “the guy on the bike twisted and turned until I had no idea where I was (I doubt that Chris knew where he was when he got on the bike in the first place), and then dropped me off at a house. The people there were asleep, so it took a minute or two for them to get the door open. An old woman let me in and then lit a small lamp. In a second room there was a bed with a little boy in it where they had both been sleeping. At just that time Mai, that is the girl’s name, came in the front door behind me and the old gal began to haul the kid out and get resettled on the floor. I could see that they were going to sleep on the floor so that I could get it on with Mai in the bed. Mai was probably the old lady’s daughter and might have been the kid’s mother. I don’t know about the guy on the motorcycle; Brother? Husband? I could see that this whole thing was just wrong and nobody should have to do what they were doing to survive, and I told them that I would be sleeping on the floor and that they should all get into bed and get a good night’s sleep. Mai was confused, as was the old lady, but they crawled back into their bed while I stretched out on the mat that they had just abandoned. When I got up I left whatever was in my pockets on a table by the door and hitched a ride back here.” Chris said that like it was a perfectly normal thing to do, and anyone would be likely to do the same. The rest of us listened with amazement, thinking back on times when we had behaved a lot less honorably, and agreed that Chris was the strangest guy we had ever known, and in our company that was saying something.
This brush with civility did not deter us for long from seeking the pleasures of Saigon however, and one especially memorable event deserves to be recounted in these pages. One evening at our base camp we were sitting on the porch outside of our hooch and it occurred to my friend Chief that it would be a great evening to be partying at the Capitol Apartments in Saigon instead of sitting on lawn chairs on a wooden porch in Long Binh. The Capitol really was an apartment but it also had a bar on the roof with all of the drinks and diversions offered by any other Saigon bar. The place was one of our favorite venues but it had the disadvantage at that moment of being twenty miles across the Vietnamese countryside at ten o’clock at night in the middle of a war. We discussed that obstacle and decided that with a little luck we could overcome it.
Strawberry, who was from Gary, Indiana and who’s stateside employment probably included auto theft, said that he could hot wire the supply room two-and-a-half ton truck. Chief, Chris and I agreed, like absolute imbeciles, that this could work, so we walked across our battalion area to where the deuce and a half rested, climbed in and fired her up. Straw ground the truck into gear and we headed across Long Binh towards the main gate.
At this time, forty plus years after the fact, I cannot remember what we said to the MP’s who were guarding that gate. We were four idiots without helmets, flak jackets or weapons giving them some bullshit story about why we had legitimate business driving a truck into the pitch black Vietnamese countryside at almost eleven o’clock at night. It might have been that they figured the Army would be better off without morons like us who’s insanity might some day get good men killed. Or maybe they were bored and didn’t care. Or maybe we just cooked up a really good bullshit story. I don’t know. The result of whatever force was at work that night was that we soon found ourselves lighting a joint and laughing as we rolled down Highway 1A heading for a good time that we could hardly have predicted only an hour or two before.
We were approaching the bridge over the Saigon River near where our port was located when suddenly Straw hit the brakes and the deuce came to a screeching halt. “What the hell?” “What’re you doing?” “You gone F’n nuts, man?” We were all babbling when a whole new bunch of babbling caught our impaired attention. Outside of our truck, which had become enmeshed in concertina wire which the Vietnamese Army strung across the highway at night to prevent enemy soldiers from riding in to do their dirty work, were a dozen South Vietnamese soldiers with their M-16 rifles all pointed at our heads and probably yelling for us to come out with our hands showing. Come out we did, but with the kind of stupidity reserved for flatworms and drunk, stoned, horny GI’s. We just piled out of the cab and jabbered at them with no more real communication than we received from them in return, pointed at the wire and began to tug on it, trying to get it out of our wheels and axle so that we could continue our journey. The commander of this detachment of soldiers, either impressed with our bravery or amazed by our stupefaction, directed his men to help us with disentangling our truck from his wire, and soon waved to us as we rolled across the bridge and into Saigon.
Once in the confines of Saigon we felt like we were home free. We were four unarmed, unhelmeted, unflakjacketed inebriated dorks in a stolen truck in Saigon after curfew in a war; what could go wrong? I was dreaming of the party that was soon to come when all of a sudden “BAM”! The truck came to a stop in the back end of a car parked on the street. “What the hell, Straw?” someone asked, and Straw tried to back up and disengage from the car but the gears were stuck. In a moment a Vietnamese guy was yelling at us, pointing at our truck and at the car. We tried to give him some money but he wouldn’t take it. After a minute or two Chief said “Look”, and pointed to the car. In the back seat, which had been empty a few moments before, sat a teenage girl holding the back of her neck and moaning.
We knew instantly that this was a scam. The curfew applied equally to Vietnamese teenagers as it did to developmentally challenged soldiers in stolen trucks. Still, this was a wild care that we had no intention of playing. Abandoning the truck we ran through the darkened post-curfew streets of Saigon, open targets for any Viet Cong or American MP’s who might see us, and made our way successfully the remaining few blocks to the Capitol Apartments, where we ascended to the roof and continued to party as if this was all part of a normal day’s work.
The next morning we could see that there were MP’s waiting at all the entrances checking ID’s. Our battalion at Long Binh had no doubt reported a missing truck, and a truck with those unit markings was reported to be resting in the rear end of a civilian’s car near the Capitol. Even the Army can add two and two and so the MP’s were looking for anyone who did not belong there. We decided to separate and go out different exits at different times. I don’t know what advantage we thought that would confer upon us, but it made us feel like we were doing something clever so that was our plan.
I went first and pulled out my wallet with my ID as I approached the door. The MP took my ID, looked it over, handed it back and waved me through. I walked away on automatic pilot; I couldn’t believe that I was free! I caught a cycalo, a sort of rickshaw hooked up to a small motorcycle, and rolled through the early morning streets of Saigon towards the docks that we had passed the night before. Upon arrival I headed to the mess hall and waited as Chris and then Chief showed up. We ate some breakfast and drank coffee, holding out from going to our duty stations and hoping that Strawberry would make it back. Finally, as we were about to give up, Straw came staggering through the mess hall door and headed straight to the coffee dispenser. It seems that Straw had a really good time. We later learned that because our particular unit was based in Saigon but detached to support the battalion in Long Binh, our ID’s included the base unit’s home location as being Saigon and it was this home location that saved our bacon. We almost never had contact with that home unit but in this case that connection came in very handy. Our officers knew what we had done but had no way to prove it, which either really pissed them off or impressed them. I never discussed it with them so I don’t know which way it went.
When it was nearing time for Chris to go home he began to lose interest in his work. Chris told me that he was trying to do his job but the BS which was routine in the military at that time, plus Chris’ longing to return to his family and girlfriend (whom Chris did not at that time know had moved on with her life) simply seemed to capture most of his attention. Chris was finally ejected from the shack where he had monitored the flow of cargo out of ships which tied up at Deep Draft Number One and was reassigned to the motor pool, where it was believed for some altogether unfathomable reason that the U.S. Army might get some productivity out of Chris. That project failed miserably. I would occasionally look out the window of my building and see Chris wandering amongst the jeeps and forklifts smoking what he wanted people to think was a cigarette, but I knew it wasn’t. Chris finally just threw in the towel and told our unit commander that he was retiring. He had only four weeks until he left both Vietnam and the Army, and he was simply done.
The commander, Lieutenant Williams, tried to explain that you just can’t do that. Chris would have none of it however, and continued to take up space in the motor pool until the sergeant overseeing that operation complained to the Lieutenant that Chris was harming moral. That was not really true. All of the guys in the motor pool liked Chris as much as we did, but the Lieutenant finally came and accompanied Chris to a pile of sandbags which lay on one side of our communications bunker. “Move those sand bags to the other side” he commanded, and then walked away.
Chris moved the sandbags, two at a time, for a few hours, taking frequent breaks inside the commo bunker where it was air conditioned. Eddie Morales, one of our group of friends, was in the bunker listening to the Doors and Velvet Underground and would have loved to enjoy Chris’ company, but he would have been roasted had he been caught with Chris inside where he could hear things he hadn’t clearance to hear, so Eddie would chase him back outside into the sweltering heat to continue moving sandbags. When Chris completed his task he sat down in what shade he could find and awaited the return of the Lieutenant. At length, Lieutenant Williams returned, surveyed the work and said “Well done. Now move them back to the other side” and left.
Chris was not impressed with this order and sat down to figure out how to meet this new effort to make him do useless work. At that moment Chris remembered that a very important somebody, a general or congressman or senator or something like that, was supposed to visit the port that day. This Very Important Personage would come by helicopter and there was only one good, open place for a chopper to land. Chris sprang into action and began to place the green sandbags in a large circle in the dry red Vietnamese dust. Slowly a peace symbol about thirty feet in diameter took shape and was completed in time to greet the visiting VIP.
That was the end of the line for Chris. He was told to stay in his hooch at Long Binh until he left the country, which was fine with him and exactly what he did. About a week after this we returned from work to find his bunk stripped and his footlocker open and empty. At a time when guys were routinely waiting one and even two weeks past their scheduled dates to leave Vietnam Chris had left a week early.
Many guys wrote back to us when they left ‘The Nam’. I certainly did, for a while anyway. You make connections in a place like that which are not easily broken. Chris never wrote however, and although we were disappointed we understood. Chris was a good-hearted guy who lived in the now, and once he left Vietnam and the Army I’m sure it was as if they had never existed. I hope to run into Chris some day, but I haven’t in over forty years and so I don’t suppose that I ever will. If you’re reading this Chris, I hope you’ve had a happy life. I suspect that you have.