Tag Archives: Vietnam War

“Thank You For Your Service”

     Veterans Day 2013 is rapidly approaching and I am, as usual, looking forward to it very much.  I love veterans and have the greatest respect for the service that they have performed.  My father was a veteran of WW II, serving in the Navy and seeing action in the Pacific theater from day one.  My brother served during what was peacetime, but which could have flared into nuclear war with the former Soviet Union at any time.  Many of my uncles served, but I had little contact with them and so must honor them somewhat in the abstract; they served bravely in Europe and the Pacific but I could not recite for you the details.

     My own service took place many decades ago between 1966 and 1969.  Like so many boys who graduated from high school in 1966 my participation in the military and Vietnam was virtually guaranteed.  I had no interest in college and knew that my call would come soon enough, so one fine day a friend and I boarded the number 5 bus in San Diego and rode to the downtown recruiters’ office.  A few days later I was shorn high and tight and dressed in green.  For the next three years I was U.S. government property.

     Since my days in the service the U.S. military has become all volunteer.  There have been four major military actions that I can remember off-hand since the switch in personnel procurement format from draft to volunteer and in the last three of these the military men and women have been celebrated while they were deployed and welcomed home with gratitude and honor upon their the return.  In the case of the first, the intervention in Grenada, the country was still trying to figure out what their attitudes towards veterans was and should be.  While there were no parades in their honor which I can remember, there were no protests either.  

     This was not the reception that my comrades and I experienced however.  Many a G.I. was spit jupon while traveling from Oakland Armyh terminal to San Francisco Airport in order to fly home and try to reenter civilian life.  I was never spit upon, which partly explains my lack of a criminal record and jail time, but I certainly heard the label “baby killer” tossed my way.  I was never invited to participate in a parade.  On the contrary, on the day that I returned home I changed out of my class A uniform, took a long shower, and after spending some time with my family stepped out onto the sidewalk in my neighborhood in shorts, sandals, a T shirt and a hat to hide the thin layer of fuzz that covered my recently-military head.

     Since those strange days the country has learned to respect its veterans, partly I believe as a reaction to the shabby way that the 
Vietnam veterans were treated.  “Thank you for your service” is a refrain that I have heard from time to time over the last decade or so and have occasionally used myself.  I admit that I am happy to see our newer veterans so honored, but while I am in the mood for making admissions I will go on to make another:  I do not take any pleasure in having someone thank me for my service.

     My return from Vietnam was ugly and many of my comrades’ returns were much worse.  We were the people whom everyone wanted to pretend weren’t there, and a tragic number of men obliged an ungrateful nation by dropping under the radar and removing themselves from “polite company”.  I mostly confined myself to my immediate neighborhood and friends for a month or so, venturing elsewhere only under a straw hat until my hair grew long enough to introduce doubt as to where I had been for the last few years.

     Even after I had grown a full set of camouflage and placed my military service firmly in my rear-view mirror a drumbeat of negative portrayals of military personnel continued to dog my and my comrades’ steps.  “M.A.S.H.” (both the movie and the television series) made anyone who chose to serve out of a sense of committment to their country look like an idiot, and anyone who opposed war as a noble intellectual.  “Apocalypse Now” made us out to be psychopaths.  “Hamburger Hill” turned us into cannon fodder in the hands of cynical and stupid commanders and even into the 1980’s “Born on the Fourth of July” corrupted a true story to present not just a lie but a damned lie concerning U.S. soldiers in the war and afterward.  To this day I have little interest in watching a Tom Cruise movie and will not sit in a theater and watch anything produced by Oliver Stone.  The list of similar such movies is long and I do not need to reproduce it here.  Suffice it to say that I waited a long, long time before I saw anybody portrayed as anything other than a caricature of the people I knew on a movie or television screen.

     A person reading this could easily conclude that I am bitter and vengeful, but that would be wrong.  I hold no personal animosity towards those who disrespected us when we returned or cynically used us to advance their agenda or careers.  All of this happened a long time ago and time really does heal a lot of hurts.  I would gladly sit down with Jane Fonda and share a meal, and if I found myself seated in a pub next to an American who fled to Canada I would be happy to lift a pint with him and share stories of our most dissimilar lives.  I am fully aware of the fact that good people can have contrary opinions and that people can do thoughtless and hurtful things.  None of us is perfect and I am so far from perfect that I have no justification whatever to point accusatory fingers an anyone else.  My Vietnam War is over and has been for a long time.

     But all the same, I do not really welcome being thanked for my service.  America had an opportunity to do that forty four years ago and instead chose to be ashamed of me.  I am glad that America has realized its mistake and I add my voice to the chorus that now celebrates our veterans today, but America told me what it thought of me when I was young and searching for direction and an identity.  I know that I have to forgive, and I do forgive.  I know that I must also understand, and I do that to, to the best of my ability.  I know that we are all in this together, and if this nation is to move forward towards a better future we have to give up clinging to our personal hurts and work as one for that future.  Still, and with all due respect, I offer any value that my service might have had only to my comrades who shared my experience while we were in Vietnam and when we got home.  As for the rest; your thanks are kindly offered and I respect you for offering them, but they are neither solicited nor especially welcome to me.

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KIA, MIA, EIA, SBIA, KIFO, Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off

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”.

TET

I am not a very big fan of the way that we celebrate the Fourth of July in America. I don’t really believe that a large percentage of our population know much about the details of what they are celebrating; the creation of English colonies on the eastern shores of North America, which colonies revolted against their British masters to create an Enlightment nation-state which at last waged seven years of war to be granted it’s right to exist. Instead, many people view the Fourth as a time solely for barbecue and fireworks. In many parts of the country personal use of fireworks is illegal, but in my corner of the Pacific Northwest fireworks are easy to come by and only very loosely regulated. And that is why my neighborhood reminds me a little of the Tet Offensive on that night and on New Year’s Eve.

“Tet Offensive” is a term which is little spoken of these days, and many of my younger friends have no idea what the Tet Offensive was. Even amongst older folk the name of Tet only rings a bell with the guys who were in the military then or with that body of political activists who were very much aware of things concerning the war in Vietnam.

A little background is necessary then to understand this story. There is a long tradition of armies at war calling truces for the holy days. At Christmas during the American Civil War opposing armies would call a truce and soldiers from each side would share tobacco, coffee, food and sometimes letters to post to relatives living behind the respective lines.  During the first world war an event transpired in which, on the first Christmas Eve, the German, French, and English armies in one sector of the trenches spontaneously laid down their weapons and sang, ate, played soccer and worshipped God together. They were all reprimanded severely for this of course. Many other examples of such truces, official and spontaneous, could be given.

It is therefore not surprising that during the conflict in Vietnam it was arranged that there would be a truce on Christmas for the western soldiers and their allies, and a truce for Tet, a Vietnamese holiday one month later.  How this truce was arranged I have no knowledge, but I do not doubt that the U.S. military and the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese had contact in some way. This fact was made obvious to me by the collection of California ranch-style houses surrounded by a concertina barbed wire fence and guard posts which clustered just to the rear of my battalion area. I wondered about those very out-of-place houses and asked an MP once what they were for. “Oh, that’s where the senators and congressmen and other bigwigs stay when they come on a ‘fact finding’ tour. Most of the facts that they find are well stocked liquor cabinets and some very obliging company with the mostly female staff.” I believe his story to be true, because during my twenty months at that location I was never aware of a rocket, a mortar bomb, or so much as a spent AK 47 round landing in or near that compound. My guess is that there was some area in communist held parts of Vietnam which never got bombed, napalmed, strafed, or otherwise harassed in return. “The wire” my MP friend told me, “is not to keep the Cong out; it’s to keep you out.” So however the truce arrangements came to be, come to be they did, and we all enjoyed standing down just a little and forgetting for a few hours that we were in a war 12,000 miles from home.

On the eve before Tet most of my entire detachment, which consisted of about twenty five guys, and Headquarters Company which counted to another sixty, came together for a grand unit party. We had a small open trailer, which was usually pulled by a jeep, filled with ice and beer. Close by we had a grill made out of a fifty-five gallon drum cut in half lengthwise with the two ends welded together. Grenade screen, which looked like chicken wire but made of much more substantial metal, was laid over the cut drum. Charcoal was lit in the drum and steak, chicken and burgers were cooked on the grill. All of the meat and beer had been “requisitioned” at the ship terminal which we operated on the Saigon River. A pallet here and a pallet there would never be missed in the river of supplies that flowed through Newport Army Terminal.

The party went well into the night, and you may not be able to envision a pallet of beer but it is a lot, and by the end of the evening it was gone. I had put a pretty good buzz on but wouldn’t say that it was the best buzz that I ever had; the time that my good friend Joe came down to visit via helicopter from the 173rd Airborne claimed that honor. We walked on that occasion to the NCO club and began to drink rum and coke. At the table next to us sat six Australians drinking beer. Joe and I felt an alcohol assisted rush of comradeship with out brothers of the Southern Cross and bought them a round. They returned the favor, but since there were six Aussies they bought us six rounds.  We were not to be outdone so we bought them twelve rounds, and then they bought us…, well, you can see how this thing went. By the end of the evening the Aussies, out of the goodness of their hearts, drove us to my battalion area and poured us out of their jeep within staggering distance of my bunk. That one took more than a day to get over. Anyway, I was just a bit less buzzed than that.

It was probably not three hours after the party ended and we had returned to our bunks that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese introduced us to their way of celebrating a holiday. Rockets and mortar bombs began to rain down all around the perimeter of Long Binh and small arms fire was thick. As usual we hustled into our bunkers and soon our weapons were made available as we fell into trenches to await an assault which, thankfully, never came. By morning we were able to see that the infantry had secured the wire just in front of our perimeter fence and we took a little more relaxed posture. Breakfast was served in the mess hall but we ate in flack jackets and helmets.

After breakfast I was walking back to my ‘hooch’, or aluminum bunkhouse that we had constructed, when I was treated to an experience that I was completely unprepared for. On the other side of Long Binh was the largest ammunition dump in Vietnam. Ammo of all kinds, from M-16 bullets to 175 mm howitzer rounds were stored in huge, partially underground bunkers. The Cong wanted desperately to get into that section of Long Binh and torch as much of that ammo as possible. Wave after wave of attackers hit that wire and finally one guy got through. He shot a lock off of the door and died in a hail of gunfire just after he tossed a satchel charge into the depths of that explosives-filled bunker.

The resulting explosion occurred as I was walking back to my hooch, and as I saw the black cloud begin to rise I stopped and turned to face it. I watched as it grew and before very long it had expanded into something like I had never seen before. I was transfixed, and the only thought that registered in my brain was that the Cong had somehow gotten hold of a nuclear weapon. I had seen eight inch cannon go off and B-52 strikes, but nothing even came close to this. The black cloud boiled and billowed as it grew, with jets of flame erupting through it’s outer surface and ripples of concussion coursing through it as more of the ammo dump blew up.

I was strangely calm as I watch this. I had seen the films of nuclear tests and had been trained in the battlefield realities of a nuclear blast, and so I knew that there wasn’t one stinking thing that I could do, being so close to the detonation. I could only enjoy the spectacle with my last few seconds until the inevitable blast and heat wave turned me into glowing molecules. The thought that it should be instantaneous and painless was some comfort. I stood and watched, stood and watched, stood and watched, and as I saw the cloud grow to about fifteen or twenty percent of the sky and then stop I began to believe that I might survive this thing after all.

The rest of the day contained plenty of activity to keep my attention diverted from the shaking that I experienced once I realized that I would get to live at least a bit longer. No more heavy stuff fell on us and the North Vietnamese, who were dug in on a hill across from my unit, had the infantry and a C-47 gunship to keep their attention directed away from us.  Tet dragged on for several more weeks and was a bloody nightmare for both sides. The war eventually settled back into a more routine grind and fifteen months later I went home. Unlike too many of my brothers I was able to leave that place behind and get on with life. But like all of those guys I still retain very vivid memories of those events, and when it happens that I run into a guy who looks my age wearing a hat or something which indicates his Vietnam Veteran status I will great him, we will ask where we served, and when I mention Long Binh he’ll usually say “were you there when the ammo bunker went up?” It happens all the time.

So when the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve fireworks go off I try not to be a grinch. I remember that these are just people who don’t really know what an explosion is. I pray that they never have to find out.

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.