How to brush your teeth in a combat zone (idea)
|This all got started in: I was a prisoner in a Mexican whorehouse
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 up around.
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 heightened state 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, by 1970.
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.
"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 he talked.
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. Bang-bang-shoot-shoot-live-die, what-the-fuck-it's-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 Vegas smile:
"Whynchu take ma pitchur n show the folks home what a real gook-killer resembles, Oh Three Bee Twenty? Do mah momma proud."
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
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