This all got started in: I was a prisoner in a Mexican whorehouse
Chapter 3 in an E2 nightmare called REMFS.
I don't remember reading about the heat
of our dirty little
war in Vietnam
. Yes, we all know it was hot, and the most sophisticated
of us think we are able to prepare ourselves somewhat for experiencing
something of what it is like to be in a Hot Place
, but when I stood at
the top of that 707
's stairway, I could smell
the heat. My nose was
vaguely someplace between my ears and my shoulders and for me the smell of
the heat was an awful lot like nausea. And me without a toilet bowl to curl
The light and the heat took what was left of my breath away
and, working to get some air into my lungs, smelling the stale perspiration
of the E-6 in front of me on the stairway, I was struck by something I
computed was definitely unusual: I could hear maybe five or six
different rock n roll tunes wafting up the jetstairs to me, like the music
was trying to escape the shit-smell of that too-hot little country.
Squinting against the day, I could see radios and cassette players shining
in the sun,
many more than five or six, maybe hundreds of music machines
sitting on the tarmac surrounded by thousands of G.I.'s waiting to go home. I know you
may have heard that it was a Rock n Roll war, but you must try to
understand: to me, in the afterglow of my pre-road
of awareness, this was something Very Significant.
High above the
rest of the cacophonous soldiers' music of Ton Son Nhut, in the
forefront of my first instant as a member of the world's first
Rock and Roll War, the Beatles were singing Nothing's Gonna
Change My World. Hmmm...I didn't know, of course, but in my mood
of the time, in my on-going meditation upon the concept of acceptance
that I had studied in my Vedanta class,
I was willing to give the D.J. who was running this shit
the benefit of the doubt. I mean what choice did I have?
They stuffed us into O.D. schoolbuses with thick mesh
screens covering the windows. It occured to me that grenades
would bounce nicely off the mesh but that it was more likely installed
to keep the windows from being broken by beer bottles or a
well-aimed rock. They hated us in Vietnam. You had to be there.
I'd never been to another country except Canada and Mexico,
which, if not for the ebb and flow of history would also be the U.S.,
so they're no big deal. You think, as a young man, that foreign travel
is exotic. A small part of me almost wanted to go to the war just so I
could travel. If that sounds ridiculous then I guess you didn't
grow up poor and curious. But they hated us, the Vietnamese, truly,
I watched the yellow faces as we made that evening busride
to Processing and our temporary billets. Once-proud faces, I think,
now hardened with the fatigue of fighting a war that isn't a war. These
folks weren't getting napalmed out of their thatched huts somewhere
in the boonies, you see. They were city people, living with 300%
inflation and bad plumbing and no refrigeration. They were watching
their sons learn to deal dope to the G.I.'s. Their daughters were turning
tricks with men young enough to be their grandsons. The G.I.'s were
tall; the girls were small. And we were naive; so naive.
Two or three days later (Who the fuck knows? Your first week
In-Country you're a Zombie in jungle fatigues and you've got the
shits and too many people telling you what to do.), two or three or
four days later I'm standing in a rough-hewn circle of
Fuckin New Guys and we're
listening to this undoubtedly inbred cracker-ass E-7 explain
to us how to brush our teeth. (Lest you think this strange, allow
me to remind you--I already know how to brush my teeth, because
I've had this fucking lecture before, in Basic Training, not to
mention First Grade.)
This is the Army Way you may have heard something about:
There's The Right Way. The Wrong Way. And the Army Way.
They figure they can maintain combat effectiveness in a hostile
environment by teaching grown men how to brush their teeth.
I submit: any asshole who hasn't learned to brush his teeth by
the time he gets to a combat zone is way behind the learning
curve. I'd make non-brushing of teeth reason enough to rotate
back to the States, no questions asked. But I, of course, am not
The Army. I am merely Government Issue,
stricken by the heat, the smell, and the strangeness of it all.
I'm standing in this group of young, semi-ill-looking E-4's in
brand-new Olive Drab teeshirts, and I've got my mouth full of this
pink shit that tastes like Pepto Bismol mixed with sand. I'm brushing
and spitting, spitting and brushing, up and down, around and around,
just kinda passing the time of day (How was I to know that I'd
be spending the next YEAR like this?), when I happen to notice
out of the corner of my bloodshot eye that the guy next to me,
who looks like he might be related to the E-7 giving the "lecture,"
isn't brushing. I'm aghast. Can it be I've stumbled upon someone
else who already knows how to brush his teeth and I've only been in
country two or three or four days?
You never know about a cracker. They can seem
slow, but in nature, you know, slow and sure usually takes the
marbles. Witness your basic glacier. Black Widow'll
wait weeks for the right guy to come along. Seasons take their
time coming around too.
This guy next to me moves in slow motion. He's wearing your
basic Ichabod Crane slouch and he's got a pair of jug ears
that very nearly could be a blueprint for those listening stations
they have in Antarctica. His complexion is rosy, like a contented
baby's, and his eyes are an odd blue color, like something out of
the movie version of Deliverance. He's got long thin fingers
that appear to have spent most of their life wrapped around
a Guernsey's nipples. Don't think I haven't run
across this type of soldier before in my first year in this man's
army. This sort of guy flocks to Uncle Sugar, like
flies to, um, manure.
I guess I must be staring, because the cracker winks at me
and gives the E-7 a surreptitious finger, followed by the
unmistakable reciprocal handwork of the practicing Onanist.
I'm impressed. Man knows his own mind too. Then he shakes my
hand and smiles: there's not a tooth in his mouth, and it's a big mouth.
"Bon Jour," he says, sounding like a guy with no teeth
who speaks perfect French. "Call me Libber."
I get an echo from a Sophomore English class I had once.
(Is it the drugs, you think, that make stuff all run together in
your head if you've grown up as a "sensitive" child?) I know
the cracker's never picked up Moby Dick in his life, but still...
"Libber?" I ask, not too brightly, wondering wha?
Toothless French cracker reaches into his fatigues and pulls
out a full set of choppers--uppers and lowers. Puts them in.
Smiles a big shit-eating grin.
"Short fer Liberace," he says, plastic teeth grinning epicene.
"I'm from N'Orlins 'n' I like t' boogie."
He arpeggiates an imaginary piano. Reminds me of one
of Richard Manuel's runs cause he sort of sings
along with it. Nice little lick...
"Fuckin' lifers kin kiss my rosy red rectum, you ask me.
Gonna kill me gooks 'n plenty of 'em. I ain't afraid a no gooks."
The army is a great leveler of mankind. Things just tend to drift
downward to the lowest common denominator. Usually you're
so bored you'll talk to anybody. There was something about Libber
that appealed to my better judgment. Something in his eyes, maybe,
or the way his hands beat relentlessly against his pantslegs when
We survived the tooth brush lecture and hooked up later, late
in the day when the haze from burning shit hangs low on the
horizon like firecracker smoke on the Fourth of July.
In a torturous deep south patois, made moreso by the fact
that he liked to keep his "store-bought" teeth in his
pocket--"t' guard aginst homos" he revealed solemnly--Libber
explained to me that he came from a long line of American soldiers,
and French soldiers before that, some of whom had fought in
the French and Indian War and with General Jeb Stuart. Out
of respect and fatigue I neglected to mention that his
ancestors had been fighting on the wrong side in at least two
wars and what did he think the odds were this time, but be that
as it may, Libber had soon impressed on me, over a few Filipino
beers in what was called the Enlisted Men's Club but more
nearly resembled a toilet that served as a waiting room for a
whorehouse, that all he really wanted to do in the world was
kill Vietnamese "comminists" and then get back to the even
more important business of playing piano on the corner
of Bourbon and Saint Ann.
"Y' see, Lil Buddy" (I was neither little nor his buddy),
"a Comminist eats rice and pig out there in the jungles of
Veet Nam" (he spoke it nam, rhymes with jam-the preferred
pronunciation of all illiterates in the military), "and then he
takes t' smokin' his opiates, the better to blow your flaky shit
from here to kingdom come should you happen to cross his path."
The noise of the EM club was deafening. GI's were slipping
on their asses; the floor was covered with beer and vomit.
I was struck by the average looks of the Vietnamese girls
who were expertly twirling trays of empties over their heads
as they sashayed around the GI's who were dancing
with each other.
Everything in the room looked ugly to me except Libber.
And Libber looked crazed. Amazing how much he began
to resemble Richard Manuel. I got the beginnings
of the feeling that I wasn't in Kansas anymore.
(I was in Kansas exactly once-for the amount of time
it took me to drive through at 85 mph. I was so much younger then. I drive
faster than that now.)
Hours of redneck rhetoric and 33 beers later, I remember folding
myself into the fetal position on the musty bare ticking of the filthy
mattress that I'd grabbed in the dark the first weary night in-country
three or four or five nights ago. My O.D. blanket had holes in it, which
was fine cause it let the bedbugs and roaches crawl in and out
with impunity. I thought this equitable. After all, it was their country.
Who was I to try and stomp them into the ground? I was too
drunk to care anyway.
The last thing I remember, and it must have been all the southern
accents I'd been hearing for three or four or five days,
was that our billet--which was basically just about a
hundred or two beds on a concrete floor with a tin roof over,
open on all four sides to the night--our billet reminded me of a
tobacco auction house I'd been to once when I was a kid.
We were driving down to Carolina Beach and we'd stopped a minute
by the side of the road and it was hot, like this, and we went
inside and I could smell that sweet smell of the crop and the
harder smell of the men who were buying and selling it, and
going round and round in my head that third or fourth or fifth
night in Vietnam was the sound of the auctioneer. Rapid
hysterical phrasing-maybe it was a TV commercial I was
remembering, come to think-round and around and around,
with a Robbie Robertson fill behind Richard's keyboard on
Music From Big Pink: "Sold American!"
I wish I could tell you I wake up romantically in a cold sweat,
gasping for air with the lightning in my face and the
thunder and incoming in my ears with my buddy's
blood on my hands when I have these bad dreams I have.
That's not the way it happens, godammit. I am forbidden by
the powers that are or used to be or may someday be
again--whoever or whatever has been running my life for
the last thirty years--I am forbidden to have one of your
more basic sorts of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome types
of Vietnam Flashbacks.
I think it'd be easier, you see, if I was a maniac like those grunts
you see in movies. I know I wouldn't feel like such an asshole
about going over there in the first place, I know that. At least I'd
be able to tell Stephen what I did in the war was...well...what
normal kids' fathers tell 'em they did in the war.
But it wasn't a "normal" war, and I'm not a normal father, and Stephen's
supra normal, being two years old, so what's the Big Deal anyhow?
The Big Deal is that we were REMFs. Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers.
To the guys in the bush--the 11 Bravo 10's who did all of
the killing and most of the dying--we were lower than dog shit.
Because we were lucky. Our numbers hadn't come up. For every
dirty wet grunt in the jungle there were eight happy REMFS in the rear.
We were the clerks and cooks and typists and mechanics and doctors
and linguists and lawyers and morticians who never saw the war except in the eyes of those who fought it. Call it Support. Call it Bureaucracy. Call it what you like--REMFs slept in beds with sheets and got laid. We broke starch in the morning and spit-shined our boots at night. We had one thing in common with the foot soldier though: we hated the army too.
And you thought Vietnam was just heroes, "rock n
rollers with one foot in their graves...."
Vietnam was bullshit on the halfshell, if you wanna know.
Accordingly, the army can kiss my ass in Central Park with a
cherry on top for everything it ever did for me. People have been
known to wonder how I got myself into this predicament, this
service to my country. Personally, I think I had a death wish.
I grew up in the Out Group in a small town in Upstate New York.
It's a tribute to the wisdom of the town fathers and elected officials
that the population of my hometown has dropped by forty
percent since I lived there thirty years ago. People basically
just wanted to get by. It made for a certain...laziness...you can
still see on the streets and in the alleys. There's a lot of welfare
going on back there. Lots of widows too. Course,
they have VCRs now, so the place has changed a bit.
When I went to my twentieth high school reunion a while back,
I was surprised to learn that I was the only guy who went to college
from my class and then went on to Vietnam. A hundred and
sixty-eight of us and I'm the only Vietnam Vet with a degree.
I couldn't believe it myself, but people were looking at me funny
all night long. I suppose they gave me more credit somehow.
Maybe we underachievers have bad breath or something.
I don't think I was paying attention. It was as simple as that.
I was like the fool on the precipice in the Tarot. He's just
dancing along one fine day and he either gets by or he doesn't--it's
all in the cards. In my case, I figured I was lucky: I got to go to
Nam, check it out, and I got to do it on my terms. Pretty much.
In the Army you had what they call MOS-Military Occupational
Specialty. Army's Acronym City, you know. Give a lifer some letters
and he'll create a job title out of them. My MOS was 03B20. Job
Title: Entertainment Specialist. Oh yes. They have such things.
See, the army is very big on doing things efficiently. In the name
of efficiency, the world's largest bureaucracy managed to lose
the whole stupid war in Southeast Asia some years back. Maybe
you read about it.
When you get drafted (You young guys wouldn't know anything
about this. You've been able to move along in your careers
just like there wasn't anything in the world to keep you from
your appointed rounds. Watch out for the Middle East is all
I've gotta say. You could be on a list.) When you get drafted
you take a lot of tests. For a college graduate with an I.Q. of 149,
say someone like me or you, these tests are laughably simplistic.
A chimpanzee could pass if they graded on a curve. The army
does this on purpose, you see, cause they'd really rather have
chimpanzees in uniform anyway. No letters home:
Dear Missus Simian-American: We regret to inform you....
No morale problems: OK, all you chimps with Dear Zippy letters
stand over here.... When the army finds a chimp who can handle
a pencil, they do the right thing: they promote him. You get a
simian with stripes on his arm, well you've really got
something--a thirty-year man you can pay bananas.
When the army finds a mechanic, or a truck driver, or a
cook; in other words, a person who already knows how to do something, a light goes off in the head chimp's cage
and he says "Ahah! These people I do not have to train!"
They have a Civilian Acquired Skill." Army loves CAS's.
No advanced training--eight weeks of basic
and zappo: you've got an assignment making real money
as one of the gang. The Green Machine. It's a Goddamned Wonder.
So I had a Civilian Acquired Skill: I was an Actor. Don't ask me,
Dolores. I told this little black Speck Four with shiny intelligent eyes
and a coke nose in Fort Dix, New Jersey that I was an actor and he
grinned a secret bureaucratic grin and took care of me.
Out of forty guys in my Basic Training platoon, 36 became Eleven
Bravo Ten's. That's Rifleman. The MOS least likely to succeed.
Boys with guns and the smell of death about them. In yesterday's
New Action Army, 11 B's went straight to Advanced Infantry Training,
took a 30 day leave to kiss the folks goodbye, and shipped out for the
Big Whazoo, the Bush, the Boonies, the Republic of South Vietnam
with its bullshit yellow and orange flag and corrupt his-and-her
honchos in matching custom-tailored jumpsuits as quick
as you could zip up a body bag.
I went to Fort Huachuca, Arizona and produced plays for the grunts
that made it home. I don't know why it happened that way. I only
know that's where I met Laura, and that she has made all of the
difference. I developed a deep affection for the desert.
Almost fucked Linda Ronstadt. Dropped acid in Tombstone
on the anniversary of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.... Of course,
they sent me to Vietnam anyway, those sneaky fuckers...
"Oh Three Bee Twenty? Who the fuck's that when she's home, Stover?"
When I told Libber what I was doing for a living these days, he
immediately felt for his teeth (I think the guy was a definite
homophobe), put them juicily pinkly in, smiling his biggest
"Whynchu take ma pitchur n show the folks home what a
real gook-killer resembles, Oh Three Bee Twenty? Do mah
Why is it you suppose that we think our mothers like us
over here getting shot at? What is it about being a man that
puts such strange ideas into our heads? I could never figure
how Gold Star Mothers could get up in the
morning. OK, different war; a little different deal. But really,
there's gotta be a better way. Something like the Really
Big Super Bowl, I don't know. A World Lottery: and now
China wins 47 billion yen/dollars/pounds split one billion
ways and Japan, Panama and Texas tie for second and get
to play free next week. Something that's a little easier on the
collective unconscious, because killing men and raping women
are pretty low chakra activitites, you know what I mean?
The fact is, I did take a picture of Libber back in May of 1970,
a lifetime and a half ago. I got pictures of them all: Kyle and
Rat and John and Rita and Sean and Ellen and Schliemann
and Cap'n Rock too. I just don't have a place to put these
pictures and they've been keeping me up a lot.
Next: Libber and I go to war
Back: a long time gone
- I was a prisoner in a Mexican Whorehouse
- A long time gone
- How to brush your teeth in a combat zone
- Libber and I go to war
- Fate takes a piss
- Thanks For the Memory
- Back in the Shit
- LZ Waterloo
- Saturday Night, Numbah Ten
a long commute
Andy X Kirby True
a tale of two Woodstocks
Buy a Gun
Dawn at The Wall
Feat of Clay
I was a free man once, in Saigon
The Joint Chiefs of Staff
the shit we ate
Combat Infantryman Badge
Firebase Mary Ann
the 1st Cav
The Highest Traditions
Those Who Forget
Under the Southern Cross
Whither the Phoenix?
A Bright Shining Lie
Apocalypse Now Redux
Hearts and Minds
We Were Soldiers