The bustle beginning to take place around me roused me out of the nearly catatonic state into which I had fallen five or six hours earlier. I was lying on a step in a low set of risers at the Oakland Army Terminal, and was frankly surprised at my consciousness once consciousness had fully returned to me. Five or six hours earlier I was at the end of a ‘day’ which had began two full days earlier at Long Binh, Republic of South Vietnam. The flight to America was a comedy, of sorts, of mechanical delays, poor wind conditions, and multiple unplanned stops which turned the normal nineteen hour trip into the marathon that I had just endured. As I sat up on the riser and lit the last of a four-pack of cigars that I had purchased the evening before my mind drifted back to the start of my journey, which seemed like it began a lot more than two days ago.
“Durden, Glenn!” I heard my name called out at the close of the morning formation at the 90th Replacement Battalion. The 90th was the entry point for a vast majority of new replacements who flooded into the southern part of that tortured country every day, and the exit point for those who left under their own power Twenty months earlier I sat in that cluster of barracks for three days with my friend Earl Carroll III, who came from Houston Texas. We had been in the same unit at Fort Hood and shipped out at the same time. That was the last time that I saw Earl. I hope that he made it home.
“All of you men who’s names were called have thirty minutes to get your gear and get into formation in front of the mess hall. Anyone who misses this formation will wait a good long while before they get their names called again.” In retrospect I doubt that this was true. They needed to keep moving us out in order to make room for the ones that they were moving in. None of us wanted to test their statement however, and so in less than fifteen minutes we all had our “gear”, which mostly consisted of duffle bags with some clothes and a few personal items in them, and were standing in lines in the sticky humidity under the already warm Vietnamese sun.
The buses arrived on schedule and we shuffled aboard as our names were called once again. There was no dallying and in less than another fifteen minutes the buses were chugging through the streets of Long Binh, out the gate onto Highway 1-A, and across the flat Mekong River Delta lowlands toward Bien Hoa Airbase. On the way we passed through a rubber plantation, now untended and fallen into decay. The Viet Cong had infiltrated that plantation and put fire on us when we convoyed to Bien Hoa and back during the Tet Offensive. I had wondered then why anybody would take cover and shoot at us from behind a rubber tree. An oak or a pine tree maybe, but rubber? We never saw who shot at us and merely returned fire to make them keep their heads down until we passed by. If we had actually hit anybody, they would have had to be the most unlucky person in the world. As I passed through on that last morning in Vietnam I wondered if there was one die hard Viet Cong soldier left in those burned and blasted trees who wanted to take one more pot shot at the passing Americans. I kept my head pulled down as deeply as I could between my shoulders until we roared out of that plantation on the Bien Hoa side.
At Bien Hoa we exited the buses and were marched to a loading zone which had the welcome feature of a corrugated metal roof held aloft by a small forest of telephone poles. The shade granted by that roof was a blessing which we didn’t expect from a military which seemed to derive positive delight from making us grunts as miserable as possible. There was no concession available; you couldn’t buy a Coke or coffee or candy bar, which would have melted before you could have eaten it anyway. There were no chairs or risers either. We lay down our duffle bags and sat on them, if there was nothing breakable in them, and then began our wait for the airplane that would wisk us from this hot, foreign death trap back to what we all called “The Real World.”
The wait lasted about two hours, but to us it felt like a week. Very little moved in the gathering heat of the lowland Vietnamese day unless it absolutely had to. We watched the damp air shimmer over the tarmac, and spoke of the large aircraft that lay broken at the far side of the runway. “I heard that the Cong brought it down with a SAM” one soldier said. “Not so” said another. “It was small arms fire. Took out an engine on the final approach.” “You’re both wrong” chimed in a third guy. “It was a maintenance problem. The damned engine just fell off of that old piece of shit. I hope we’re flying out on better than that.” “I hope were flying out at all” interjected the first soldier. “I heard from a corporal in the mess hall at the 90th that sometimes the planes don’t make it, and they bus us back for a few more days.” That last comment caused some serious anal flutter, and one by one we declared with the bravado of the soldier in full complaint mode that we weren’t moving an inch unless it was to get on a plane headed back home.
The conversation continued in that manner until, at long last, a dot appeared low on the horizon and began to slowly grow in size until it became clear that it was indeed a passenger plane. “That’s it!” exclaimed one G.I. “You don’t know shit” replied another. “I’m getting on that damned plane no matter where it’s going” said a third. At that point an officer and a sergeant walked to a place between us and the runway. “On your feet!” bellowed the sergeant, and we unwound our stiff legs and stood in something that looked sort of like straight lines.
“This plane is coming in empty” the sergeant bawled out. You will present your orders to the Captain as I call out your names, and you will step out smartly. You will then proceed to board the plane. I will remind you, gentlemen, that you make excellent targets, as does that airplane, and that the less time that you spend dogging it here on the ground the better that it is likely to be for all of you. Gentlemen, try not to get yourselves killed on your last day in Vietnam.”
None of us needed much exhortation on that count, and we were wound tight, ready to spring across the tarmac and up the rolling stairway that would raise us to the door by the cockpit at the front of the plane. “You will drop your duffle bags at the ramp. They will be stored underneath the plane and will be returned to you when you land at Travis. Gentlemen,” the sergeant cracked a little smile at this point, “I wish you the best of luck with the rest of your lives.”
The officer and the sergeant walked a short distance away and began to talk about something that we couldn’t hear. We all continued to stand and watch as the plane finally landed, taxied to a point perhaps fifty yards from where we stood, and came to a halt. In what seemed to be the blink of an eye the rolling stairway was being pushed up to the side of the plane, secured in place, and then the door to freedom and, just as attractive at that moment, air conditioning, opened up.
“Adkins! Albertson! Apparicio!” The sergeant barked out our names, and the owners of those names lifted their bags and shuffled forward. After showing their orders to the officer they proceeded at a pace just under a run to the stairs, where they laid down their bags on the tarmac, mounted the stairs and disappeared into the squared-off oval that was the doorway to freedom. “Durden!” I knew the drill. I may have actually ran just a little, and I’m almost certain that I threw my duffle bag to the ground as I flew up the stairs and plunged into the interior of the plane.
Inside it was cool, at least as compared with the outside temperature. Wet heat continued to flood in through the open door, and the open storage bay doors underneath the plane where our bags were being placed probably didn’t help much either, but the plane’s engines were running and the air conditioning was pouring cool air into the core of the big jet. I plopped down into the first window seat that I could find and at last felt like perhaps it was really ending. The soft airplane seat, narrow and compressed as it was, was an unaccustomed luxury, and it felt like I was in a theater seat at the old Crest Theater, where I had watched countless science fiction movies as a child.
Men, well, really mostly boys, continued to pour into the plane, propelled partly by the sergeant’s instructions but mostly by their desire to get the hell out of Vietnam. Soon all of the seats were filled, the door was closed, and the plane began to taxi toward the runway from whence my journey home would begin in earnest. The cabin began to truly cool down now and, more important to me, the wetness of the air began to be filtered out by the dehumidifiers in the system. By the time that the pilot reached his starting point and received his clearance to take off, I was already beginning to reset my sense of reality from the acceptance of hot and miserable as the natural state of things to the possibility that one could once again be comfortable.
Somewhere in the front of the plane the pilot pushed a lever forward, or stepped on the gas pedal, or did whatever pilots do to make airplanes work, and the big machine began to crawl, then lumber, and then race down the runway. Roaring down that strip of concrete we passed the broken carcass of the plane which rested along the side of the runway. I wondered if anybody died in that plane, and if so were they coming in-country or leaving? “Shit” I thought. “I don’t want to die now. Not that way.” The plane gave one final shudder as it reached its critical speed and then became smooth as the wheels left the ground and folded up into its belly. We all let loose with a cheer as the beautifully green but tragically blood-soaked land of Vietnam fell further and further below us.
“How hight do you have to get before a missile can bring you down?” I wondered. We quickly gained altitude and I rested a little easier as we passed through the first layer of patchy clouds which were formed from the wet air blowing in off of the South China Sea, somewhere to the east. I wasn’t talking with the guy sitting next to me and he wasn’t talking with the guy sitting next to him. In fact, after that first cheer none of us seemed to be talking much at all. I was occupied with my own thoughts, which oddly enough were more focused on the guys I left back at my unit that the home toward which I was flying. Chief, Strawberry, Big Plow, Chief (yes, there were two Chiefs. We were not terribly creative with our nicknames) and the others would have boarded their armored buses that morning and convoyed across the Delta to work at a ship terminal that our unit help to operate on the Saigon River. What were they doing? Did they draw fire on the ride in? Would Phiz get another magnificent “care package” of edible goodies from his family who lived in Pennsylvania Dutch country? My friends Wes and Elizabeth and Benigo, and my family back in San Diego, somehow seemed less real than did those guys whom I had shared hell with, and the prospect of safely crossing thousands upon thousands of miles of water to reach them seemed like something other than a sure thing. Death and thoughts of death can be a difficult companion to shake off when it’s been your constant companion for almost two years.
Those and similar thoughts were going through my head when I became aware of a line of blue on the horizon which was different than the blue of the sky. As we continued to plow eastward that blue took on a greenish hue and I at last allowed myself to believe that it was what I had hoped it would be; the south China Sea. A little murmur arose as, one by one, the other guys with window seats began to see it too. “Hey, you want to see something sweet?” I asked my neighbor as I elbowed his arm. He leaned over and gazed through the window and just stayed there for a minute or two. After that he straightened up and I saw that tears were streaming down his face. “I have a wife waiting for me back home” He explained. “I’ve been over here longer than we’ve been married and together.”
My neighbor wiped his eyes with his sleeve as my own eyes returned to watch the approaching ocean. Eventually I saw the white strip of sand which separated the green but deadly land of Vietnam from the clean and benign waters of the open sea. That shoreline seemed to crawl toward us inch by inch but finally, at last, we had to look straight down in order to see it. Men were straining to lean over each other to watch death fall behind us, and two and even sometimes three faces might be trying to squeeze into each window at the same time. Then it was over. It felt like there should be a band playing or champagne popping or a sound barrier broken though. Instead, there was only the constant muffled roar of the jet engines as the big plane effortlessly passed over the beach, and then that beach too became no more than another part of the Vietnam that now lay completely behind us.
The pilot’s voice came on through the overhead speakers in that almost indecipherable crackle and static which continues to plague many such communications even today. “Gentlemen, you have now left the air space of Vietnam. Welcome home.”