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 and Libber and I go to war.
Chapter 5 in an E2 nightmare called REMFS.
Memory fails to ascertain if I ever successfully counted them all—the number of holes in a piss tube in Vietnam. I know there were a lot. Each hole once upon a time contained a rocket. Each hole ever after, at least for me, held an ocean of irony.
So you're standing there with your self in hand, sorta absent-mindedly passing the time and your water, and if you're lucky enough to be back in The World, you're pissing into a urinal the color of a movie star's teeth. There's blue writing down there: Gerber, it might say. Or American Standard. There's a sort of geometric honeycomb of holes. Maybe a screen. Sometimes it's rubber. Plastic. You've got your odd-smelling disk resembling mothballs once in a while. Maybe it's blue. Pink. There's a cigarette butt that you try to tear apart. Dick Deadeye, expert marksman. Chewing gum. Somebody's disgusting wasabi-colored loogie. Ice is the best, isn't it? Late at night near closing time. Melting just for you.
Maybe that's why I don't remember how many holes there were. Maybe I was too often drunk and barely conscious, hovering over my piss tube out in Quang Ngai Province, wishing I was someplace else. Let's just say there were nineteen empty rocket holes. Nineteen's a good number. The average age of the guys who were doing the pissing over there. And the dying.
In Vietnam we pissed into the spent rocket pods of Huey and Cobra gunships. There must have been different kinds, I don't remember now, but the ones I'm talking about were about five feet long, maybe a foot and a half in diameter, and they were indeed honeycombed, let's say, with nineteen holes for the rockets. They were everywhere, these makeshift urinals, often screened for privacy by quarter-inch plywood panels painted gray, just as often standing there naked, jutting out of the ground at a sixty degree angle in a wild sort of everyday wartime irony: we'd launched nineteen missiles out of these things, they couldn't be reloaded, they're heavy, let's stick 'em in the ground and piss in 'em.
This you could call a metaphor for the whole goddamned piece-of-shit war, so I guess I will.
There's nothing like a good piss on a hot day is there? We'd spent the morning pouring concrete for the Service Club we were building by the beach. We called it The Sandpiper, and it was meant to be a place where GI's could come and relax and shoot some pool and listen to music and even check out guitars and keyboards themselves, as if making music could somehow be an antidote to making war. The concrete was part of a wall between the main building and the music building, a little farther up the hill.
At the top of the hill was a huge generator the size of a Jeep Cherokee, very rare in Nam, the source of eighteen-hours-a-day-electricity for the club and our hootch. Not far away was the latrine, and next to that, a piss tube, commanding a fine view of the South China Sea and the helicopter outfit across the road, stretched out along the beach like a parking lot for Death's Early Airborne Delivery Service. The brutal Vietnamese sun was already heading down the sky behind us as we took in the sight, grateful for the breeze that was kicking up off the water.
Rat was ragging me about being short—meaning he was close to heading home, his tour of duty complete—as we shared the tube. Goes to show you how basically civilized we still were: we could've just pissed on the thick red dust at our feet, could've just pissed on Vietnam, which is what the Vietnamese did anyway, anywhere they felt like, but no, we were using the piss tube. Regulations, you see. SOP.
"Man, I'm so short you can see my feet on my driver's license!" "
"I'm so short I gotta unlace my boots to take a leak!"
" I need a stepstool to reach the piss tube!"
"There it is."
The permutations were endless. Degrees-of-shortness were a major subject of conversation wherever particular GI's congregated. Elaborate short-timers' calendars were everywhere in Nam, numbering down from 365 to 1, perverse inversions of the lottery that had put so many boys over there in the first place.
"I'm so short I need…."
His words were lost to me as a magnificent spindly-limbed CH-54 Sky Hook helicopter flew over us on short final to the LZ, a burnt-out hulk of a Cobra gunship dangling below it on a single strand of wire, no longer aerodynamic, but useful, I suppose, for parts, this late in the war.
I never tired of watching the birds. When Francis Coppola started his Vietnam masterpiece Apocalypse Now with the ghostly echo of rotor blades, every vet knew he'd got it right. It's the sound that haunts us all to this day.
There were very few helicopters left now in this particular unit across the road. Many had been lost in Operation Lam Son 719, the invasion of Laos that spring which was still secret back in the world, but common knowledge to those of us who spent any time around chopper pilots.
The Sky Hook pilot set both aircraft down in that well-practiced way they all had, and Rat and I were both buttoning up when something unusual caught our eye:
There was a mechanic standing in front of a Cobra down there, reaching back towards us across the chopper's stubby little wing, and as soon as we noticed him, a pink mist enveloped him when the entire pod of rockets he was working on ignited. Like that of a centerfielder who hears the crack of the bat long after he sees the batter swing, the sight of the explosion was followed by the ungodly…fuzzle…I can only call it that, the dull dead sound of (I assume) nineteen short-circuited rockets being launched simultaneously THROUGH the mechanic.
"Oh my God!" yelped Rat as the man was vaporized.
Time slowed down, as it always does in such moments, and before our astonished eyes a single rocket corkscrewed up and out across the beautiful midday sea, dancing on a tail of dirty white smoke. I was aware of movement towards the suddenly non-existent mechanic on the part of other men down there, but the flight of the rocket was mesmerizing. It arced majestically away from us, seemed to stabilize its trajectory, and slowly began a turn to the right, back towards land.
We watched as it turned almost 180 degrees, like a sky-writer attempting to finish the last word in a valentine, and—horribly—it crashed into a hootch six hundred yards away. There was no explosion, no fire. And then we heard a pathetic foop as sound caught up with the moment.
We learned later that the rocket had killed a soldier lying on his bunk, the shortest of short-timers, a man scheduled to take the Big Bird home the very next day.
It was the damnedest thing, the way Fate could deal from the bottom of the deck, even if you were just standing there, marveling at the color of the sky and the infernal ingenuity of mankind. Taking a piss.
Next: Thanks For the Memory
Back: Libber and I go to war
- 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