This all got started in: I was a prisoner in a Mexican whorehouse,
followed by: A long time gone, How to brush your teeth in a combat zone,
Libber and I go to war, and Fate takes a piss.
Chapter 8 in an E2 nightmare called REMFS.
Capn Rock had a case of the ass. We'd failed an I.G. inspection for no damned good reason and he decided to take it out on the band. He scheduled three gigs on New Year's Eve, knowing full well that the boys and I just wanted to work over the new tracks and play the midnight show at 27th Surg. Maybe get lucky with a nurse who didn't like doctors.
The days and weeks and months all run together in any war—ask any soldier—but for a rock n roll band averaging three gigs a day seven days a week, Vietnam was just one long-ass road trip.
Up before dawn, load the gear. A silent hung-over ride to the bird. Off-load the gear; load up the bird. Hi to the pilots, younger than your little brother. Feel the noisy queasy semi-magical lift-off that pretty much defines any helicopter ride I've ever taken; then the stultifying thirty to forty-five minute journey into the semi-opaque heart of uselessness that was our entire South East Asian misadventure.
We needed a break. And—but for our songs—the war damn-near broke us.
"Fucking weather sucks!" yelled Cow. (His name was Kyle but Mamasan called him Cauw and it fit). He was placid, bright-eyed, slow-to-anger and easily-led, but I had introduced him to Saul Bellow and Tim Buckley and life was opening up to him. He'd moved from lead to rhythm guitar when Logan TDY'd out of the bush.
"What?!" I yelled back over the slipstream and the incessant dishwasher shimmy of the
Huey Slick that was trying to shake itself apart.
"He said the mucking feather rawks, Goddammit!" offered John in his Liverpool accent, bass guitar, a skinny pothead from some mailbox halfway between Van Horn and El Paso. He flashed his second doobie of the day at me, cupped in his hand with his knuckles against the wind. I shook it off. I was in charge of these maniacs. Somebody had to keep it together. I glanced at the co-pilot, who shook his head.
We hit a gust, air pocket, whatever the fuck they call it, morning convection off the jungle. We meet a bump in the airy road to our future and Rat, the drummer, moves quickly 'cross John like a carsick dog.
"Fuck! 'the fuck back on your own side goddammit, Rat! Puke in your diddy bag for shit's sake!" goes the bass player, all colorful rock n roll patois.
Rat managed to pull it together. He was guaranteed to lose his lunch at some point in our four chopper rides this day, but so far, so good. He held out his hand, motioning for the jay. John passed it in a rough fraternal way and Rat sucked up the smoke like it was an antidote. He was short. Less than thirty days and I'd need a new drummer, 'cause Rat was headed back to some nowhere job in Watertown with nothing to show for his trouble here but some solid chops and a serious drug habit.
Logan, cradling his M-16, watched from the other side of the Marshalls with that grunt detachment he had. My pride and joy. The newest addition to the band. Six months in the bush as a squad leader'd bought him a couple Hearts, a Silver Star, and a take-no-fucking prisoners attitude. He played lead guitar like Eric Clapton must make love, and he reinvigorated the band. The Joint Chiefs kicked some serious musical ass. There was nothing like them in the whole goddamn war.
Thwack! went the mil-spec cleaver of chicken necks. Thwack! through tendon and sinew and pimply flesh of fowl. Smoke from his perpetual Pall Mall curled round Schliemann's eternal snarl. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! The man enjoyed his work.
Brrrrring! goes the phone hanging on the wall behind the bread rack. An anonymous K.P. picked it up, answering in military-speak: "91st Evac Mess, Private Toomey, sir!".
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!
"It's for you Top!" goes the K.P.
Schliemann parked his favorite weapon in this war in his chopping block, flicked an inch-long ash to the floor, and grabbed the phone in a fist like a bull's knee:
"Sargent Schliemann, sir!" he grumbled, Pall Mall TDY'd in the corner of his mouth.
The caller was brief. Professional. In command.
"Yes sir. Can do sir. We'll have them ready by 1400. On the dust-off pad. Yes sir! Thank you, sir!"
He tossed the phone back at the K.P. harder than he needed to.
"Shroeder! Schnackenberg! Front and center!"
Two youngish E-5's in bloody aprons fell in from across the kitchen like henchmen in a horror film.
"General's callin in his marker. I need a hundred and fifty turkey dinners on the evac pad by 1350."
"But Top, that leaves us short here tonight!" goes Schnackenberg, the smarter of the two.
"Fuck it!" goes Master Sergeant Rudolf Schliemann, twenty-seven years in this man's army, dragging long and deep and finally, "Let em eat cock!"
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!
LZ Ky Tra was out in West Bumfuck, Vietnam, but we enjoyed playing there cause the gunners were cool and there weren't many of them. We played a lot of acoustic stuff out there, deep in the silent old hills. Early Dylan. Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Ky Tra was a change of pace for the Chiefs, desirable at ten hundred hours in the first place. The arty boys had access to dynamite shit and the band usually walked away with a ki or more for their trouble. You could call it a job perk, but marijuana had a whole different value system attached to it in Nam. Like the heat and the mosquitoes, it was ubiquitous. No big deal. Just something you did.
They played four encores and finished with "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place
," the most requested tune, I believe, in their repertoire, and why not? By 1155 we had our gear stacked on the pad and were kicked back like lazy dogs in the sun, waiting for the bird. The clouds had broken, at least temporarily, and Cow broke out the Martin as we sat there feeling lucky and fat. He was working that old Robert Johnson tune, Last Fair Deal Gone Down, and he had our own Capn Rock in mind, I know, when he sang:
My captain's so mean on me
My captain's so mean on me
My captain's so mean on me, good Lord,
In this Fucked up Rich Man's War…
"Ah fuck man, you tunin' down my axe to play dat old sad song again?" bitched John, showing up from a trip to the mess hall with a bowl full of jello, green of course. Keeping guitar strings from rusting was a major deal in this fucker, let along keeping them in tune for more than a verse or two.
"No, no," said Logan, grabbing the Martin from Cow. "Check it out:"
And he laid down the smoothest four bars of Delta blues guitar plus the turnaround you could imagine.
"You don't have Robert's fingers, you gotta improvise, man," he said, handing the guitar back. "Improvise."
"Shit," said John. "Ah cain't do dat, muthafuckah. God damned sellin'-yo- soul-to-the-Devil sumbitch!"
"Yeah, you can. It's just a simple inversion—" he grabbed the Martin back—"…diminished…with a four fret stretch…here….Check it out again—"
And as he showed us again, slower, the Big Whup-Whup-Whup of Chinook blades boomed up the sides of the inverted emerald-green bowl we were sitting on. The twin-rotored monster was on top of us in no time. It swung 'round into the wind, dangling toy-like, blowing cigarettes and boonie hats like a willful child. It set itself down with its rear end and twin exhausts staring at us like a big green frog. The cargo door yawned open, like the frog was going to tongue a bug off a lily pad. Hot turbine exhaust blew across the steel-plated LZ in our faces, like bad breath from a hell hound.
"Fuck!" protested Rat. "A fucking Shit Hook?!
He kicked at a bag of cymbals in frustration.
"I hate motherfucking Shit Hooks! God fucking damn it to hell! Shit!"
Cow rolled his eyes, took the Martin from Logan, and the boys started to saddle up. The problem was the CH-47 Chinook was five times the size of our Huey, but you flew in it all buttoned up; no open door to dangle your feet out of; no fresh breath of water buffalo shit to take your mind off the curious motion of a helicopter just barely out of ground effect. The smell of fuel and exhaust and sweat and all that bare metal got to Rat. Every time. The loadmaster handed him a bucket with his picture on it. There was no question about where his lunch was gonna land this flight. I pitched in with the gear, saluted the XO who'd come down to see us off, and in less than five minutes we were airborne. On the road again. Just like in the song.
Helicopters were like pickup trucks in Vietnam. They cris-crossed the countryside like workers bees at a honey ranch, transporting men, equipment, and—not infrequently—fresh death for the unimaginative. The fire power available to a Forward Observer, the officer who called in artillery, helicopter gunships, and Fast Movers—the F-4 Phantom jets that rained down Holy Hell—was awesome and unprecedented in war, but it was the choppers we liked best. Cause a helicopter could get to wherever the hell you were and dust your sorry wounded ass off to the rear before you cashed in your ticket to the Big PX in the sky.
That was the theory anyway. That's what Mom and Dad read about back home: "Junior can get waxed in a firefight, lose the functionality of the entire lower 4/5's of his body, and STILL live to collect his VA benefits till he endures a morphine-addicted death of tired old memories."
Helicopters gave us a fucking chance.
I never liked the Chinook all that much myself. Too big. Too heavy. Those twin rotors needed to be constantly synchronized. We were an enormous slow-moving target for any dink with a Daisy. We seemed to take a lot more ground fire riding in 'Hooks than we ever did in Hueys. Plus they had a high-pitched whine, inside, that left my ears messed-up to this day.
There was also the matter of a lack of exclusivity in a Chinook. Lots of people hitched rides to lots of places. There were a handful of back-to-the-bush grunts, a couple officers headed off to R&R, and an entire FASTEAM inside this one. The bird was packed to the hydraulics with pallets of ordnance, stuff under tarpaulins, mailbags, rations, and—not so improbably as you might imagine—a shiny bicycle, one each, Schwinn, ten-speed, blue. This was the kind of thing the band hated: we'd have to offload our shit again so the FASTEAM could get their stuff out. It was a pain in the ass.
FASTEAMS. Forward Action Support Teams. One of the true bennies of fighting in Vietnam was that you didn't get back to the rear all that much. They brought the rear to you. By helicopter. A FASTEAM could be comprised of clerks, doctors, dentists, finance officers, insurance agents, and—frequently—a rock n roll band.
Thirty percent of our gigs were as FASTEAM components, and the guys hated it, cause there were officers attached. And officer, as everybody knows, means discomfort. This one was a beady-eyed butter bar lieutenant with a Nikon F slung 'round his neck who adjusted the band on his Rolex Oyster while he tried to direct our load-in; the kind of guy you just knew was going to cheat on his wife with her best girlfriend someday if he didn't get fragged here in Nam. All the way to the next hill he snapped pictures and scribbled in a notebook. An amateur war correspondent. Ernie fucking Pyle Lite. This was before the age of nerds, so let's just call him what he was—an asshole. That you had to salute. The Joint Chiefs sat sullen all the way to the LZ, watching this guy embarrass himself. Rat even forgot to throw up.
If you're not killing people in a war, you are a voyeur, pure and simple. The spectacle is so ghastly, so gut-wrenching, so fucking contradictory to the proper functioning of every cell in your body that ultimately you can't get enough of it. Few of us were privileged to hip-hop through the combat zone with impunity, chancing death every time we slipped the surly bonds of earth to share, for a morning or an afternoon, the lives of the boys who did the real work, but secure—pretty much—in the knowledge that we'd be sleeping in our own beds back at Division come nightfall. Few of us were lucky. But all us were lucky that day.
I caught the loadmaster talking on the horn first. He nodded, checked his watch, and made a "round em up" signal to me. He jerked his thumb towards division and the bird lurched and pulled a ninety degree turn east. Rat reached for his puke pail and the butter bar got all indignant. I couldn't hear shit, but it was obvious we were now messing with some imaginary schedule he'd had implanted on the reptilian part of his brain. That might be the mark of the true asshole, come to think of it. Inability to go with the flow, which—as we know—is all downhill.
Twenty minutes later, we touched down through very rough air at 91st Evac. The clouds over the South China Sea looked short-tempered, headed our way. The rotors spun down, so the boys and I had time to take a piss. A bunch of cook-types were man-handling hot-cans of food to the bird. There was a pappasan by the piss-tube, giving mammasan some shit about, heh, burning shit. It was obvious that he had no intention of burning no American's shit. He'd pour the diesel fuel on the 55-gallon drums cut in half, full of slop and toilet paper and cigarette butts and gauze from the hospital, but he wasn't gonna TOUCH the goddamn things.
"No no no no no!" he said for our benefit, circling his hand around his ear. "Beaucoup dinky dau." Mammasan was obviously plain crazy. The poor woman yelled back at him, giving as good as she got, but nonetheless scrunched down in that dink crouch they all had, face right in the crap, and tried to skid the fucking thing along the dirt, away from the latrine.
It was a disgusting thing to watch, and the boys and I helped her out. There were four cans from the four-holer, and none of them had been changed recently. The piss and shit slopped about. Flies buzzed round, big as Loaches, LOHs, Light Observation Helicopters.
We finally got the drums a reasonable distance from the latrine, emptied two cans of diesel fuel on them, and pappasan produced a Zippo—his big fucking moment in the spotlight—and fired them up, one after the other. Combustion was lazy, oily and unspectacular, but soon shit-soaked smoke curled into the sky, as if to ward off what appeared to be extremely bad weather headed our way.
When we got back to the bird, Lieutenant Ernie was screaming at this huge E-8, the above-mentioned Sergeant Rudolf Schliemann, who was thrusting some kind of paperwork at him, a clipboard with a pencil attached by a rubberband. Ernie wasn't going to sign shit and he made it clear:
"I'm sorry, Sargent, but we're over gross right now. We don't have room for…whatever it is you've got there!" He made a "start em up" motion to the pilot, and the 'hook started to come to life.
"No fucking way, sir!" yelled Schliemann over the turbos. "You'll have to off-load something, sir! This is GS18. CG's orders!"
All Joint Chief eyes went to me. They last time we'd been bumped from a flight we'd lost two guitars and a tom tom while we waited all night on a chopper pad three octaves east of Cambodia. We were GS16—the equivalent of full bird colonels so far as flight priorities went. Whatever the sarge had in his hot-cans, it for damn sure flew before us. I walked over to the LT and made my case for New Years entertainment over bicycles, unmentionables under tarps, hell even his whole goddamn FASTEAM. The LT saw the light, howbeit dimly, and we lost another ten minutes off-loading half our gear to get to a pallet of gas masks that it took six men to move.
Schliemann grinned at me, saluted LT Ernie halfassedly, and stepped away from the bird as she started to wind up, getting light in the undercarriage. I started to worry about getting back before dark as I hopped in next to the Marshall stack, and the froglips clanged shut.
By the time we unloaded the FASTEAM (and our gear again!) at LZ Betty, the weather had truly turned to shit. Crosswinds buffeted the Chinook as she worked her way across ridgelines and deeper in into the mountains. The sky was the color of the insides of those shitcans back at 91st Evac, a place I'd much rather be, to tell you the truth.
The band and I had run out of daylight before. In decent weather you don't mind spending the night on a firebase on a little nub of a hill in the middle of the jungle. The voyeur part of you gets a real workout when the sun goes down and Charlie gets busy. You pull guard duty just like the line troops and, usually, there's enough other stuff going on to keep your attention.
The shit hook was just pulling away, effectively marooning us at a place the grunts called LZ Waterloo, when the fire mission started. I watched the 155's come to bear and felt the moist air shudder as the batteries fired for effect. The news was good: the gun barrels were at forty-five degrees. Mr. Charles was way-the-fuck-off in the bush. Tormenting the Americans who'd called in the fire mission, certainly, but no threat to the arty boys of Waterloo.
After some discussion with the CO, a Southern California surfer dude who had a little moustache and a friendly smile, name of Iverson, who somehow managed to have one foot in command and one foot in the same boat his men shared, we decided to set up in their mess hall instead of outside on the little stage they'd built. Rain was coming, and so was night. I could pretty-well predict we'd spend New Year's Eve on the hill. So much for round-eyed nurses at 27th Surg. I radioed Capn Rock back at Special Services, and he told me he'd try his damnedest, but the fact was—choppers didn't fly at night in these mountains, and they for damned-sure didn't fly in typhoons, which is what this storm was shaping up to be.
Other than that, life was good. The arty boys had fresh turkey dinners all around, courtesy of the Division Commander via First Sergeant Schliemann and his Prussian elves. It was some kind of reward or something: most gooks killed by long distance, fire from the sky on your little pointed hat, kill a commie for Christmas, something like that. LZ Waterloo had been messing up Charlie's shit beaucoup of late, and the General liked that. It made him look good, and when the General looks good, the division looks good too.
There was a LRRP unit in from the 198th, Logan's old outfit, and it turned out he knew some of those guys. I watched from across the mess hall as they quietly got reacquainted, in the way only foot soldiers who've shared unspeakable events can. Solemn. Heads nodding slightly as bad news was exchanged. Grim smiles of resignation. They were all so goddamned young, not a one of them over twenty.
Schliemann's dinner was excellent, due in no small part to the fact that we'd managed to get the damned turkeys there within hours of their being cooked in the first place. There was mashed potatoes, stuffing, those little white onions, cranberry sauce, and for dessert—ice cream. Cold, firm, just-like-back-in-the-world vanilla ice cream.
And then the Joint Chiefs set the place on fire with a two hour set that was as good as anything I'd ever heard, and I've been to two county fairs and a pig-fucking contest. There were no fire missions in the middle of the show, which is always nice, and we all felt like we'd done some real good this time. Real good. Surfer dude was so happy he insisted: none of us would pull guard that night. We were on official R&R at LZ Waterloo.
The hootch was one of the more elaborate subterranean affairs I'd come across—your basic ammo boxes and sandbags, sure, but there were little bits of wood paneling here and there, and somebody'd put a lot of time in on the lighting, which was artful and subdued. Covering the walls was the usual collage of playmates and short-timers' calendars, and little Vietnamese candle lanterns warmed up the shadows. We settled in for a little post-show camaraderie, seeing as how no chopper pilot in his right mind would come get us this ungodly night. The wind and rain swirled topside in furious combinations, but we all buttoned up and our shit was tight.
Logan's LRRP buddies started it off with some of that plum wine you came across from time to time. A couple of lifer juicers fell by to thank us for the show, and to lay a bottle of good cognac on us, but eventually they drifted back to their part of the compound and we settled in. Juicers and heads respected each other, generally. It was Nature's Way.
Rat passed around a couple OJ's—opium laced with marijuana—all done up like a perfect pack of Marlboros. They were his particular favorite launch vehicle, and the gunners picked them up cheap in the ville down at the bottom of the hill. I popped the cognac after a while, the music got better, and soon enough somebody came up with enough hits of blotter acid to make the south think they'd won the war.
In the spirit of conviviality, comradeship, friendship, New Year's Eve and, basically, because we were tired and bored and curious and young and hurting inside, we dropped it and smoked. Drank it and dropped it. Smoked it and dropped it and drank it and popped it. Each to his own. And I have no doubt some of us, Rat included, fired up the needles as well.
Clouds so swift
Rain won't lift
Gate won't close
Get your mind off wintertime
You ain't goin' nowhere
Whoo-ee! Ride me high
Tomorrow's the day
My bride's gonna come
Oh, oh, are we gonna fly
Down in the easy chair!
It was a rare Dylan track that carried me in and out of the scene. Off somebody's fifth generation bootleg. On somebody else's cheap cassette player. While the generator surged, now and again, and the lights rose. And the lights fell. And the wind howled. And the hard rain fell.
Pictures of girlfriends back home rose and fell too, sliding through the night, on waves of memory and hope, on plans for the future, on promises made and yet to be made. Desire was discussed. Lust had its moment of truth. Our underground room full of baby galaxies spun round and round, and the stars and the planets, the rocketing comets and the lonely asteroids, the moons and the meteors and the sons of America's complexity lived and breathed and were content.
And then I heard it. Sure as fate come knocking, the distant Huey rotorwash we'd come to love. The angelic sound that means salvation for thousands of boys. Wet, cold, wounded boys on drugs, in a way very much like us, but in another way, not like us at all.
Cowboy Bob, that crazy cracker motherfucker WO2 from 27th Surg had flown his raggedy ass UH-1 through hell, highwater, and this night to pick up me and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So that we could play that gig. That midnight New Year's gig for the men for whom helicopters had meant so much. The men whose lives helicopters—medevacs, dustoffs, big green aluminum insects with red crosses on their abdomens—had certainly made possible in this worst of all possible worlds.
The boys and I were tripping so bad we couldn't even have loaded the bird in the rain, no matter how many times we'd rehearsed it, but the gunners and grunts, our turkey-stuffed, opium-laced, pot-smoking, beer-guzzling LSD-tripping New Year's Eve-celebrating American G.I.s got us safely aboard, and the ride back to Division was the worst time I have ever spent in an aircraft. I was so sure I was going to die that I didn't care anymore. As far as I was concerned, I was already dead, so nothing really mattered, did it?
The quonset hut was decorated the way only women can decorate. It was bright the way only women can make the night bright. It smelled the way only women can smell, and it rocked the way only the Joint Chiefs of Staff could rock.
We played for four hours, and it was somewhere in the middle of the encores…it may have been during We Gotta Get Out Of This Place
, I can't remember…I heard that sound again. Whopp whopp whopp. Wopp wopp wopp wopp…And quick as that, quick as a knife blade can introduce a man to eternity, quick as a good time can turn bad, the dust-off choppers started to arrive.
The doctors and nurses tore out of the show. Tables overturned, beer and booze and orders flew. The band gradually lost the beat and the song fell apart, and I have two very strong pictures in my mind from that night—the first is my guys, standing helpless on a stage that nobody's watching, and the second is Surfer Dude, soaking wet, standing at the back of the hall in shock and dismay.
Eighty-two of his men were wounded. Thirty-two had died. Just minutes after we'd choppered out, LZ Waterloo had been overrun by a North Vietnamese Sapper Battalion using tear gas to gain a fateful edge in the fight.
LZ Waterloo's gas masks, you'll recall, had been left back on the chopper pad, exchanged in a hot New York minute, remember, for turkeys with all the trimmings. And ice cream. And a rock n roll band.
The Commanding General lost his job eventually, and I—eventually that night—fell asleep, as all bad boys must.
I woke up on the beach. The sun was red and curiously warm for being so low over the South China Sea. Spread out in front of me, like a multi-planed crystalline wedding gown upon the sand, were thousands of glass and plastic containers, shining bright as intellect in the new light. Cocaine. Heroin. Alcohol. Just another New Year's Eve in Vietnam.
A brace of Huey slicks skimmed low over the water, skids nearly touching the white noisy surf. I followed them with my gaze, till they were gone, and I was left with Mammasan and Pappasan, arguing like they always did over who was going to burn the next can.
The camera in my mind zoomed towards them, slowly, as I began to remember how I'd ended up with a face full of sand and a hangover. Gradually it settled on the dead-black smoking drum. It pushed tighter, past the Vietnamese and into the smoke. Into the flame. Through the flame and into the heart of the matter, into the shit—where maggots twisted and writhed in an inferno they had neither created nor could contain.
There, indeed, it is.
Next: Saturday Night, Numbah Ten
Back: Back in the Shit
- 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