This all got started in: I was a prisoner in a Mexican whorehouse,
followed by: a long time gone.
Chapter 4 in an E2 nightmare called REMFS.
As luck, fate and the AG's Office
would have it, Libber
and I were manifested on a C-130
flight to Chu Lai
, quite a ways up the east coast of that crescent bitch, the Republic of Vietnam
As We Knew It. This was several days after the toothpaste class, and more than one more night at the EM club
. It wasn't till almost a week had passed--and we were waiting there in stinking, rat-infested Ton Son Nhut--that I discovered the EM Club was off-limits to transit personnel like Libber and me.
It didn't keep my new New Orleans piano-playing buddy from bringing the house down every night. He played that great rollicking barrelhouse kind of rock n roll that grew organically out of the bayou like Spanish Moss crossed with psilocybin. His big rough hands pounded octave-and-a-half bass chords into place against a melody so pure you wanted to levitate. For a change of pace he'd launch some relentless blues riff, piano keys like railroad ties choogling away to someplace you'd never been before.
Libber, a pure musician, had the gift for doing whatever the hell he pleased, guilelessly. He was truly Mother Nature's Son, the Fool on the Hill; he lived his life and his music as pure as he could make it. He craved the club cause he loved the piano. Where he was going--to the bush up in I Corps--pianos were not on the Table of Allotment. How could you hump one to a firefight anyway?
The long hours of endless orientation classes mutated into days of boredom punctuated by the horror stories of guys who'd been waiting there longer than we. I of course was immediately reminded of Waiting for Godot in Army Green, a farce I knew I must write one day.
We went to the PX where there was nothing much to buy. We played basketball with tall thin black men from east coast cities after sundown. We saw movies and Filipino dance bands and we smoked. Most of all, we waited. We began to get a sense of where we were, based on rumors about where we were going. Always, though, there was strangeness. If I needed one word to sum up my whole Indochinese experience, it was strange.
The sounds of my new home: the distant rumble of artillery, rattling across the sky, more...hollow...than thunder. The shookshookshook of helicopter rotor-wash, incessant, ominous, familiar to us all now as the sound of our cities, but new to me then back in the war, scary, like a synthesizer underscore in a horror film.
Shit-kicking country-western music on Japanese cassette decks; acid rock twice as loud on the original Boom Boxes. The painful Ba-Moi-Ba and Choi Oi gratings of the Vietnamese "indigenous personnel"--the hoochmaids and seamstresses, the handymen and shit-burners.
There were magnificent things to see over the battleship-grey sandbagged rooftops of the compound: F-4 Phantom jets, camouflaged, heavy with ordinance, belching smoke and flame from their afterburners as they screamed away, two at a time at dawn.
There were the massive blackened B-52's, wingtips drooping, taking forever to escape the earth, sounding like hell ascended with their already-ancient engines, four on each blue-starred spindly wing.
Jolly green giant helicopters, like praying mantises the size of tractor-trailer trucks, hefting broken burned Huey choppers like injured dragonflies somewhere over the horizon.
The sky was beautiful at dawn. We knew, though we couldn't see it, that the South China Sea was out there somewhere under the brand new sun. For the first time in my life I enjoyed being up for breakfast. It was the only cool time of day, but it didn't last past the coffee. By eight AM you were sweating.
At noon the insects would come. And the brain-rattling heat would make us lazy and irritable. The smells of human and animal waste and rot and sweat and stale 3.2 beer from the night before co-mingled in a unique and particularly disgusting way. I found myself holding my breath a lot. I began to wonder what death smelled like.
The beginnings of uncertainty, and a kind of apprehension for what lay ahead would keep us on edge all afternoon, till finally we could loosen up at dinner, in a mahogany-stained plywood mess hall with red and white tablecloths and warm green jello on every plate. Lime jello, fake whipped cream. Always green. Always warm. It was maddening. But Libber and I knew it wouldn't last.
Finally we found ourselves--in-country more than a week, getting comfortable in our two pairs of boots--striding along a runway with everything we owned in our duffels, a definite sense of urgency in the air. It's the kind of thing Hollywood would shoot in a ghostly grey dawn, anxious staccato music playing under.
As it happened, our flight to the real war came late in the day, after dinner and before Marooned, a Gregory Peck movie about astronauts up to their asses in orbital disquietude. On the whole I'd rather have eaten warm green jello every day for the rest of my life than get on that plane.
The C-130 Hercules, a four-engined conventional aircraft painted camouflage green, was the Allied Moving Van of Vietnam. It carried everything everywhere: Men and cannon to Division HQs. Rations by parachute to places like Khe San. USO girls and their miniskirts from one end of the country to the other. Man who built the C-130, he made money, let me tell you. These planes are still around. The Central and South American drug cartels ship dope in em. They can land on an unimproved runway the size of George Dubyah's front lawn. Some things don't change no matter how hard you pray.
Libber made it a little easier to accept the cold hard sit in the red mesh harness that lined the bulkheads of my flying van. He made me laugh, though I can't really say why. Maybe it was the way the corners of his mouth drew back in spastic jerks when he was thinking of what to say next, I don't know. He looked like a marionette with its strings switched round, like God was playing a joke on the rest of us by revealing just what a jerry-rigged contraption we really are.
"Hey Stover, you reckon the pussy'll be any better where we're goin'?"
It made me laugh, the thought. Two puppets going at it doggie-style in a junior high school talent show; wooden limbs clacking, strings all a-tangled in the jingle-jangle morning. Then I flashed a picture of Libber back home with his real girl, whoever she was or was going to be, and it was sweet and sad and I wanted it to be so real for him.
"Yeah, Libber. I do. I reckon the pussy'll be a whole lot better where we're goin'."
He smiled his toothless smile, nodding his puppety head, turning hopefully towards his plexiglass window on the war.
The rest of the guys aboard, 60, maybe 80 of them, didn't have their own personal Howdy Doody along for the ride. The rest of the guys were real quiet now. I fancied I could tell which of them were bush-bound 11 Bravo Tens. But maybe that was only because I felt like I was in a movie and I was waiting for the harmonica player to show up. I kept expecting the guy next to me to show me his girlfriend's picture in his wallet, maybe give me some letters to hang onto. Jesus.
Was I the only one, tense against the vibration all along the bulkhead as the engines sped to take-off speed, was I the only one in Vietnam that day who felt he was in a movie? Was it because I was, by training and inclination, an actor? I think not. One of the things I was to learn in my first long hot year after college was that we all thought we were in a movie in the beginning. American boys are brought up on war movies and cowboys and indians. Doesn't matter if it's Audie Murphy, John Wayne, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The name of the game is war. And the real thing is so much different from the movies that you want to scream.
I was feeling supremely stupid, like the biggest jerk in the world, as I tried to catch, in the window behind the huddled GI's across the plane, a shot of Saigon, of something I could hang onto as a memory of that first step into the darkness that I could feel was beginning to envelop us. I saw a blur of green, a swash of blue. The plane lurched off the runway and I wanted to cry.
The last of the sunset was behind us some time later. Light poured into the plane like honey, washing the men across from me in something like portable Knights of the Round Table opulence. Fading rapidly, sunshine panned from man to man as the plane maneuvered, giving each one in the long green line his moment of distinction, his closeup if you will.
It was so quiet, though the noise of the plane itself was deafening. There's no insulation on these craft. No seats. Nothing extraneous, just bare stringers and hydraulics, rivets and struts. The lot of us sat there, alone in our thoughts, and eventually the horizon swallowed the sun and the plane lurched to earth.
We landed quick and rough. I'd lost my sense of time I realized; maybe that was part of the grand plan, I don't know.
As the rear cargo door opened, I could see there was still some vapid light in the western sky. The heat rushed through the door and pulled us out into the night. A million insects surrounded us. I could feel them beating at the lights inside the C-130. I could hear them, all of them it seemed, buzzing around my ears, trying to fly up my nose, tickling my mouth. The bugs made a different sound than their cousins stateside. Louder. Lower. Bigger.
Shit, rain, I thought, seduced for a moment by the larger thunder-sounds that had suddenly intruded. The insects left my consciousness. Then I saw the glow in the sky, not far away, not far away at all. It blossomed, quite small when you got the perspective, then settled into a steady burn as the jungle caught fire under the white heat of the artillery. Before we realized we were witnessing war for the first time, a pair of quad 50 machine guns opened up, maybe fifty yards away. Tracer rounds pounded--hot red lead--into the darkness at the edge of the jungle between the airfield and the fire. Significantly, though we didn't think about it at the time, fire was not returned. It was thrilling. Even better than the movies. My apprehension was suddenly gone. It was adrenaline I felt now. It felt good.
I watched for a long time. A pair of cobra gun ships joined the fray, mini guns snaking six thousand rounds a minute in a thin magenta thread of woe. The smell of gasoline wafted over us in a wave of hot night air.
Eventually things quieted down. I looked around. Somehow the airfield had almost emptied of G.I.'s. It was like all the guys I'd flown in with had dissolved into the night, borne away on the noise and the heat. An odd sensation to say the least, but one I chalked up to fatigue and the curious effect of combat observed. What the hell was I supposed to do now? There was nobody there to hold my hand. Weird change.
Libber smacked me, hard, on the shoulder. He held out a big red paw:
"Keep 'em buttoned, G.I."
He jerked his head in the direction of four soldiers in muddy fatigues. A sergeant and three E.M.'s
"These my boys, Stover. Gotta beat feet."
The sergeant looked at me, hard-eyed, nodding his head slowly, shifting his Thumpgun on his hip.
"Later," said Libber, head bobbing, jaw muscles clenching and unclenching.
And I turned and took my first step into the real war.
Back | Next
- 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