I paid my visit to Colonel Bannock’s office on my next day off, wondering what such a visit would have in store for me. Once again I pushed open the screened wooden door and walked into the battalion headquarters, and once again I made eye contact with Vince. This time it was me who raised my hands in the ‘what’s up’ signal, and Vince just shrugged his shoulders. I pulled my focus back to the task at hand. Most of my past interactions with the Colonel had usually resulted in a chewing out or something really unpleasant, such as pulling the metal drums out from under the latrine seats and burning off the rank contents therein with diesel fuel. I began to prepare my mind to parry whatever thrust the Colonel might make, but the bottle of bourbon he had given to me threw me off balance. At length I decided that I would just have to go inside the wolf’s lair and think on my feet.
I knocked on the Colonel’s door and “Come in” was the command from inside, and that is what I did. The Colonel was seated behind his desk as usual but there was clearly an absence of the air of dishevelment and disinterest that had existed there two weeks ago. The eyes were missing their redness, and a sort of comfortable cheerfulness had replaced the despair that had previously been all over the Colonel’s face.
“Come in, Durden. Come in” he beamed, and motioned for me to take a chair. I saluted first and he remembered protocol and snapped a salute back in return. I took a seat in the indicated chair and waited for the Colonel to get to the reason for this appointment. The wait wasn’t very long.
“Durden, that was one excellent piece of soldiering that you did in spotting that VC observer. G-2 tells me that if the Cong would have attacked before we reconfigured our defensive stance we could have had a much rougher night of it last week. We were weak on the 289th’s perimeter and Charlie could see that when he put together the view from both sides of the wire. Because of your warning we were prepared over there and had reserves in place. We could have lost a lot of men, and some prisoners too. Instead, we gave them a proper ass-whipping and took a couple of prisoners of our own.
We don’t hand out medals for what you did Durden and we try not to give medals to shitbirds anyway, and you are my prize battalion shitbird. But if there was any way that I could do it I would pin a medal on your chest myself, even though I know that you’d trade it in at the first whorehouse you came across in Saigon. But one thing I do want to know Durden. How did you manage to act like a soldier on that one day?”
The Colonel had accurately assessed my interest in medals and the Army in general, and I was not offended by his statement in the least. Many of us were sick of the military and the war in Vietnam and did our best to divorce ourselves from the reality that we lived in. As much as it was possible I did try to ignore the fact that I WAS in the Army, and that I WAS in a war in Vietnam. My reputation proceeded from the skill that I demonstrated in living, in my mind at least, somewhere other than in the sandbagged hooch that was, in fact, my current address.
“I can’t really say what happened” I told the Colonel. “Earlier in the day I was just looking out over the Delta and thinking about how I never really see anyone out there, and then later I looked up and saw somebody. That seemed odd to me and I remember watching him walk slowly in front of our wire with his water buffalo and I thought how strange that was. There was no rice paddy, nothing to plow, and I guess all I can say is that it ‘felt’ weird to me. Something inside my head told me that you should know about it.” I wondered how the Colonel would have handled it if I had said instead ‘A guy who says that he can turn into a dog told me to tell you about it.’
“Well, it doesn’t matter much how and why. What matters is that you nailed it and a lot of their guys are dead instead of a lot of our guys, I believe that good work should be rewarded, and I tried to get you a weekend at Vung Tao. That’s a no-go, so instead I got you a weekend pass to Saigon. I already know that you sneak in there all the time anyway, but on this weekend at least you can drop the cat and mouse game with the MP’s. How does that sound to you?”
I was momentarily speechless. I knew that the company leaders were award of what we called ‘sliding into Saigon,’ but I had no idea that word of it had passed all the way up to Colonel Bannock. ‘Watch your step’ I thought to myself. ‘You just may be able to push these guys too far.’ “I don’t know what you’re speaking of Sir” I bullshitted with the straightest face possible. “But I certainly appreciate the pass. When is it going to be effective?”
“This coming weekend. I’ve already made arrangements with Top Sarge. You’ll ride in with the work crew on Friday morning and a jeep will take you to wherever you want to go in Saigon. Be back at the port by 5:00 PM Sunday and then it’s back to normal.”
I snapped off a reasonably correct salute and said “Thank you, Sir. Is there anything that I can get for you while I’m there?” The Colonel smiled and said “No, thank you Durden. I’m fully capable of supplying my own vices.” He returned my salute and I turned to go.
“Just a moment, Durden” the Colonel said. I turned and saw the Colonel staring almost through me, lips pursed and fingertips of both hands forming a tent again on the desk in front of him. After a pause his vision focused back on me and he said “There is something that you can do for me after all. Take your steel pot and flak jacket with you on Friday and store them in the mail room. On Monday we’re running a convoy out to Cu Chi and I know that we’re going to take fire as usual from the gophers along the way.” Gophers is what we called snipers who would pop up from holes in the ground and squeeze off a few shots or maybe fire a rocket propelled grenade at our convoys, sometimes scoring a hit that would leave a G.I. dead or wounded, or a truck and its cargo in flames.
“It’s a long shot, but you saw something that made a difference here. Maybe it was luck or maybe it was something else. Either way, I’m going to roll the dice and put you on that convoy. You’ll be in the lead truck – sorry about that – and there will be a radioman in the truck with you. Your job will be t keep your eyes open and report anything, do you hear me? Anything at all that you see. Do you understand, Durden?”
I understood, all right. I understood that we took fire all of the time when we went on these convoys. I understood that I usually didn’t have to go on these convoys, and I understood that the lead vehicle, unlike the point man on a foot patrol, was the favorite target for the Viet Cong. If the lead vehicle became a flaming wreck it took a little while for the convoy tailing behind it to get sorted out, which provided much better target opportunities for snipers who might be scattered all over the countryside.
“Yes Sir” I replied weakly. “Will there be anything else Sir?”
“No Durden. Have fun in Saigon and try not to get your throat cut or the clap. There’s no telling which could be worse, and good luck on the convoy. I promise you, if you can see anything that cuts down enemy interference on this convoy I won’t keep piling on more duties. Do whatever you can this time and then it’ll be back to normal.”
“Yes Sir” I said and saluted again. Colonel Bannock returned the salute and I exited the office, weekend pass in hand. I walked over and showed the pass to
Vince and he just starred at it in amazement.
“Things just keep getting stranger here!” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, for one thing the Colonel comes into his office at 0700 sharp now, right after mess. He comes out of his office all the time, checking reports with the XO (Executive Officer), tonnage and personnel reports with Captain Munk and Lieutenant Carlucci, and he even goes over the morning report with me. He’s been a different guy since we got hit. Maybe he just likes combat; I don’t know. Anyway, it’s kind of groovy that he’s involved in the battalion, but it’s also kind of a pain in the ass.”
“Well, as long as it gets me a weekend pass into Saigon I’m alright with whatever’s behind it. Say, I need to have Larry out in the comm0 bunker get me in touch with a friend in Tan Son Nhut. Can you get me authorization to go in there? ”
“Sure. I’ll get Lieutenant Carlucci to sign a pass. Come back after lunch and pick it up.”
I agree to that and then went off to piddle away the time until I could pick up my authorization to use the radio. Army regulations forbid ordinary troops hanging around in the communications bunker, where any number of sensitive things could be overheard. At last I was handed the signed piece of paper and entered the bunker.
“Hey Larry” I said upon entering through the airtight door. Larry jumped a little, and I think he had been taking a nap.
“Oh, hey Glenn” he responded. “You know they don’t allow you in here.”
“Relax man. I have a pass.” I showed Larry Zorner the pass, and he did relax. I would frequently, on very hot days, seek refuge in the air conditioned coolness of the commo bunker. Larry was an alright guy, and if he felt lucky on any given day he would let me hunker down in that coolness and listen to We Five or Cream or Arthur Brown on the record turntable that he kept among the electronics in the bunker. Usually, however, he would boot me out rather than run the risk of getting busted and finding himself reassigned to unloading creosote-soaked telephone poles from the blistering hot hold of a freighter at the port.
“Oh, that’s OK. What do you want?”
“I’d like for you to get a message to a friend. His name is Jerry Warnock and he’s at 3rd Recon at Tan Son Nhut. Do you think you can do that?”
“Piece of cake. What do you want to tell him?”
I wrote out a message telling Jerry where I would be next Friday morning. Larry worked his magic and contacted comm for 3rd Recon. They said that they would dispatch a messenger to Jerry and return shortly with a reply. At that point Larry and I slipped out of the bunker and withdrew to the shaded hillside behind our battalion, where we smoked a joint and argued over whether the National Football League or the American Football League was better, which side of the U.S. Civil War had the best argument, whether blondes were better than brunettes (although how two shy nerds like us would know one way or the other is anybody’s guess) and anything else that we could think of.
Shortly, we returned to the commo bunker and listened to some new record that Larry had procured by a band named Velvet Underground. No reply to Larry’s message had been received yet so we grooved to Lou Reed and Niko, listening to them and the others through the streams of radio chatter. At last, halfway through “Junkie John”, the call from 3rd Recon came through. I was amazed at how a mildly stoned Larry could be wailing along, singing the lyrics to the song that he had already memorized, and still pick up the voice of the 3rd’s radioman.
“Message delivered, 91st. Anything else I can do for you?”
“Not that I can think of,” replied Larry. Thanks for your help. Tighten up. Over”
“Tighten up yourself” came the crackling reply. “Over and out.”
“Deal’s done” said Larry. We slapped hands and I slipped out of the cool darkness of the comm bunker and back into the harsh sunlight of another hot and humid Vietnam day. I walked a half mile to the Long Binh NCO Club where I drank beer and ate salty snacks while I read some history book that I had obtained from a bookmobile service that the Army ran on Long Binh Post. We were a pretty big place, and some refinements reminiscent of home could be had there. At length I walked back to the battalion area in time to receive my friends who were returning from the port, and the party started all over agains.