10: Hatch Team Charlie
<< 9: The Monsoon || 11: Saigon >>
Late in the day, on the same day I’d been fully accepted on the team, I’d told Yogi that I’d asked the boson for a transfer. He seemed surprised at first, but the more he thought about it he began to understand why I’d done it. I told him that I thought I ought to go and tell the boson that I’d changed my mind. He advised me not to and his reasoning made sense:
“I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you. The boson never transfers people. He don’t believe in that shit. He’s a busy man and I don’t want to bother him with something as trivial as this. Don’t worry about it. I’m sure if he was gon’ transfer your ass he’d have already done it by now.”
One day, late in December, just after muster, the boson asked me to stay behind when the team dispersed and headed to our hole assignment for the night.
“Congratulations, Powers. I just received word that you’ve put in a request to extend your tour in-country. Well, it’s been approved. Your new rotation date is March 28th, 1971.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Now, about your request for a transfer. I normally don’t honor transfer requests, but I figure the Navy owes you somethin’ for saving that man’s life. I’ve arranged for you to be transferred to hatch team Charlie on the other shift.”
My heart sank. The look on my face must have revealed my emotions instantly. The boson picked up on it, and he was not a happy camper.
“God-damn it, man! Don’t tell me you don’t want it!”
I didn’t say anything. I just hung my head.
“I knew it! God-damn it! Well, there ain’t nothin’ I can do about it now! My driver’s waitin’ outside. He’ll take you back to Tien Sha. Report back here tomorrow mornin’ and fall in with Charlie. That’s all. Dismissed.”
He turned and walked into his office. He was fuming.
“God-damn it! Son-of-a-bitch! Try to be nice and whadaya get? Jesus H. mother-lovin’ Christ! Damn!
He slammed his office door. I just stood there for a moment. I just stared at the floor for the longest time. If the world had ended at that moment I wouldn’t have cared one bit.
The boson was still yelling and screaming to himself when I finally turned and walked outside. Foxtrot was working the forward hole on the ship in the starboard slip on pier two. I could see the guys - and they could see me - when I walked out of Alpha Shack and climbed in the boson’s jeep. They stopped what they were doing and just stared at me; mouths open; shocked; surprised. I thought about going over and saying good-bye, but I didn’t have the courage to do it. I didn’t know what to say. Just as the driver put the jeep in gear and started to drive off, I glanced up and saw Yogi running down the gangway on the ship.
“Hey, hold up. What’s going on? Driver! Stop!”
The driver turned to me and asked if I wanted him to stop. I said no. He kept driving.
“God-damn it! Stop! Stop that jeep!”
The driver kept driving. Just as we drove through the main gate and onto the highway, I took one last look back and saw Yogi storming into Alpha Shack. Behind him, off in the distance, I could see the rest of the team running down the gangway. They weren’t jogging, either. They were running as fast as they could.
The driver dropped me off at the barrack. I walked over to the stoop and sat down. I was totally dejected. I’d only been in-country for 3 1/2 months; I’d only been an accepted member of the team for one, and now I was starting over. The guys on Foxtrot were my friends; they were like family, and I was under no illusions; we were only berthed a few sections away from each other, but because we were now on different shifts I’d be lucky to ever see them again! Any of them! Period! The guys working days never saw the guys working nights except when we passed boarding the cattle cars at the piers.
God-damned Navy! I hated it! I was mad, miffed and miserable! Who was to blame? Me, that’s who! I’m the one who’d asked for the transfer! I couldn’t blame the boson; he’d just done what I’d asked him to do. I couldn’t blame Yogi, either; the boson had never granted a transfer request before. Yogi had been sure he wouldn’t do it this time. But he did!
I suddenly got an urge to get drunk. Without even thinking about it I got up and headed for the E.M. club. I got back to the barrack around 2 in the morning. I was sloshed; blasted; I was knee-walkin’, toilet-huggin’, up-chuckin’ drunk. I emptied my guts on the ground outside the barrack and then went inside. I fell just inside the door and literally crawled to my bunk. I pulled myself up, rolled over on my rack and passed out.
I don’t know what woke me up the next morning, but I came to just minutes before the cattle cars pulled out. I didn’t even have time to change clothes. I smelled like bourbon, my hair was all matted, and there were vile-smelling little blotches all over the front of my utility shirt - remnants of my stomach contents from the night before. I grabbed my hard hat and ran outside. I jumped on the last cattle car just as it was pulling out; it was already moving - going about five miles-an-hour - when I jumped aboard.
I didn’t know it at the time, but when I took a seat in the cattle car I sat down right between two members of hatch team Charlie. Their first impression of me wasn’t a good one. They both got up almost as soon as I sat down. They grabbed the handbar that ran down the length of the car and turned and looked at me in disgust.
“Jesus! What’s that smell?”
“Damn, man! You sick or somethin’?”
“What’s that on your shirt?”
Several of the others sitting close by got up and grabbed the handbar as well.
“Man, you stink!”
“And alcohol! This son-of-a-bitch is drunk as a skunk!”
“Who-in-the-hell ARE you, man? Anybody ever seen this clown before?”
All the way to the piers I was the only one sitting on the left side of the car. Everybody within five or six feet of me, even in the seats on the other side, got up and moved toward the rear. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t answer any of their questions. I just sat there and stared at the floor.
When we got to the piers, I was the first one off. As I walked through the gate I saw all the guys on Foxtrot standing in a group off to the side. They ran up to me as soon as they saw me. Bullwinkle got to me first.
“Bad break, Wiley. You OK?”
“Yogi tried to fix it, man. But the boson said no.”
Yogi extended his hand and I shook it.
“No problem. Hey, I shoulda’ let you go see him. I’m sorry; it’s my fault.”
“No it ain’t. Hey, water under the bridge, man. It don’t mean nothin’.”
“I hear ya’.”
“Thanks for tryin’, though.”
Bullwinkle had the last word.
“Hey, asshole. You don’t smell too good.”
I smiled and responded.
“Got a little bent last night.”
The guys all patted me on the shoulder, one at a time, and then went to board THEIR car. I made my way to Alpha Shack and fell in formation at the rear of hatch team Charlie. As soon as I fell in the guys I’d sat down next to on the cattle car vented their frustrations.
After the hatch team captains got their hole assignments, Charlie’s captain came out of Alpha Shack and walked straight toward me. The other members of the team moved out of the way as he made his way to where I was standing.
“The boson says you know every job at the piers. When he told me you were lookin’ for a transfer I told him I’d take you. I don’t know what your beef was with your old crew, but I need somebody who knows what you know; who can do what you can do. Welcome aboard.”
He extended his hand and I shook it. He got a funny look on his face and then asked the obvious question.
“Are you drunk?”
“I hope you don’t make a habit of that.”
“Good. OK, then. We’ve got hole number three on the Lykes on pier two. Gaines and Thomas, go get some Hysters. Powers, you take the winch. Let’s go, people. Let’s do it!”
Hatch team Charlie had some serious problems. Only three of its members were old-timers. That was a problem because all three of them were scheduled to rotate home in just a month or so. The rest were all newbies. That was a problem because none of them knew the ropes yet. Only two of them had been in-country as long as I had. The rest had joined the team as a group in early November.
Browder, the hatch team captain, was relatively new himself, and he was an E-6 engine-man, not a boson’s mate. He didn’t know jack-shit about working cargo and it showed. The number three hole on the Lykes we worked that first day was loaded down with rolling stock. We didn’t need Hysters, but he’d sent two men to get two of them anyway. What we really needed was one of those big lifts; one of those big mothers rated at 10,000 pounds. As soon as I saw the cargo I started scratchin’ my head. Why had he sent them after Hysters? And the instructions he gave when we first got to the hole confused me even more.
“All right, you guys. Get down there and un-gripe one of those jeeps. When you get it un-griped, yell up to Powers here and let him know you’re ready for the hook.”
Browder had taken up a position right next to me at the winch controls. I couldn’t help myself. I questioned the procedure immediately.
“Are we gonna un-gripe this shit one piece at a time?”
“What if a storm comes up or something? What if there’s a rocket attack?”
The sky was perfectly clear. The monsoon rains had just ended a few days earlier.
“Look like bad weather to you?”
“We ever had a rocket attack in the daytime that you know of?”
“You wanna make some tons, or you wanna go through the motions?”
“Then tell ‘em to un-gripe all that shit. If they un-gripe a piece and then move out of the way while I lift it, hell ... it’ll take all day just to clear this level. If they un-gripe all of it, all a once, we can boogie. We can clear all three levels on this shift.”
“But what if a squall blows up?”
“We can stay onboard when they cut her loose and re-gripe the shit seaside.”
He paused for a moment. Then he continued.
“What if there’s a rocket attack?”
“Go seaside with the ship, you mean? If there’s a rocket attack?”
“Is it OK with the boson if we do that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Whadaya’ mean, you don’t know?”
“I ain’t no mind reader. Look. You wanna make tons or what?”
He got a really strange look on his face. He seemed to be in deep concentration for ten or twelve seconds. Then, he leaned over and yelled at the guys down in the hole.
“Hey, Jeter. Go ahead and un-gripe everything.”
Jeter seemed confused.
“All of it?”
“Yea. Un-gripe everything.”
“What if there’s a hurricane or something?”
I couldn’t resist the opportunity.
“We can lay bets on how many times that jeep in the middle hits the port bulkhead, how ‘bout that?”
Browder gave me an ugly look and then yelled at Jeter again.
“Just un-gripe the shit, OK.”
“All of it?”
“All of it.”
“OK. Whatever you say.”
I was still wondering about the Hysters. I figured as long as I was puttin’ in my two cents worth, I might as well bring that up, too.
“Why’d you send for two Hysters? Don’t you need one of those big boys to haul this stuff to the staging area?”
“Nobody on the team has a license for one of those.”
“Whadaya’ mean, so?”
I was getting frustrated. I was hung-over; my head was hurtin; I stank to high-heaven; I hated the assholes I’d ridden on the cattle car with and I was still pissed off about the transfer. But more than anything else, I was losing patience. Hatch team Charlie was a joke. Browder was a joke. Nam was a joke; one big, giant cluster-fuck. I could feel myself losing control, and I didn’t like the feeling.
“Forget about the big boy for a second. If you don’t mind my askin’, what do you do with the Hysters?”
“We use ‘em to push the stuff to staging.”
“Push it? Aw, Jesus! Enough of this crap. Put one of the others on the winch, I’m goin’ to get one of those big motherfuckers.”
“You got a license?”
“How’re you gonna check one out without a license?”
“Ain’t nobody at the forklift shack ever asked me for a license, not even for the one I got.”
“But what if you get caught?”
“What if you get caught tryin’ to check it out without a license?”
“What are they gonna’ do, send me to Nam?”
“No, seriously. What if you get caught?”
“They won’t let me have it, I guess.”
“I don’t like this. Do you know how to operate the thing?”
I was really gettin’ pissed. We were wasting time; we needed to be movin’ cargo. My answer was very curt:
“It’s got a key. You put it in the ignition. It has two levers. One controls the tilt, the other raises and lowers the forks. It ain’t rocket science. Look. We ain’t gettin’ anywhere sittin’ here lolligaggin’. Get somebody else to run the winches and I’ll go down to the forklift shack and check out one of those big boys. In the meantime, get those other two assholes to take the Hysters back.”
I didn’t even wait for a response. I left my station at the winch controls and started walking toward the gangway. Browder stopped me.
“Wait. The main reason I wanted you on the team is to run the winches.”
“I don’t have anybody that can do that. Not well, anyway.”
“You’re kiddin’, right?”
“Hey, man. Guys who’ve only been here a week or so can run a winch. There ain’t nothin’ to it. It’s the first job everybody learns.”
“They all know how to do it. It’s just that none of them are very good at it. The boson said you were good; that you had a touch; a talent; that you were REALLY good.”
My patience was hanging by a thread.
“What do you mean when you say they aren’t very good at it? Are they so bad that they’re damaging loads and stuff?”
“Sometimes. Sometimes we’ve banged up a fender or two lifting jeeps out of a hole.”
“Banged up a fender or two? That’s what you’re talkin’ about?”
“Yea. And other things. Look, none of my guys has a good touch on the winches.”
“Banged up a fender or two?”
The thread broke.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a sledgehammer leaning against the bulkhead of the ship. It belonged to the ship’s company. Sometimes the ship’s crew would make a sledge-hammer available to the hatch teams to knock hatch boards free when they took the covers off. What I did next was totally out of character. I walked over and grabbed the sledge-hammer and then walked over to the edge of the hatch. I looked down to make sure no one was in the way. Then, quite nonchalantly, I dropped the sledgehammer into the hole.
“What-in-the-hell are you doin’?”
I didn’t say anything. Moving as fast as I could I went to the ladder and climbed down. The whole level was loaded with jeeps; twelve beautiful, brand new jeeps. I picked up the sledgehammer and went to the nearest vehicle. I raised the sledgehammer over my head and came down as hard as I could on the front right fender.
“Jesus! What-in-the-hell are you doin’?”
I went to the next jeep and did the same thing. Then the next one; then the next one. I executed twelve blows in quick succession. In less than a minute I’d put a major dent in the front right fender on all twelve units. Then, I went back to the ladder and climbed back up topside.
“OK. Now that we don’t have to worry about whether this shit gets dinged or not, I’m goin’ to check out one of those big motherfuckers. Tell Moe and Curley to take the Hysters back. Then, pick out somebody, preferably one of the newbies, and let’s let him get some time in on the winch. Whadaya say? That sound like a good idea to you?”
I didn’t even wait for an answer. I ran down the gangway and headed for the forklift yard. One of the other hatch team members, a newbie, started yelling at Browder just as I reached the pier.
“Jesus H. Christ! Did you see what that son-of-a-bitch just did?”
“Yea, I saw it. Hey! Get your ass over here! It’s time you learned how to run a winch.”
All the way to the forklift yard my mind was racing. Four thoughts were trying to force themselves into my brain simultaneously. Four emotions were converging on my thought process and each was demanding my attention.
Thought number one: God! It had felt so good to trash those jeeps; venting my frustrations like that! It had been an exhilarating experience!
Thought number two: Hatch team Charlie was a joke! And I was going to be stuck with them; stuck on a team that didn’t know its ass from a hole in the ground for the rest of my tour!
Thought number three: The rest of my tour! Jesus! My extension had been approved; I was going to be on Charlie for another 14 months! It wasn’t even 1970 yet, and now, I wasn’t due to rotate until March of ‘71!
Thought number four: I’d screwed up big-time, and I knew it! God only knows what my new team members thought of me. For all they knew I was an alcoholic! For all they knew I was a conceited, self-possessed, arrogant bastard; the biggest asshole that ever worked at the piers! I couldn’t go on acting that way, I knew that! But could I help it? Could I modify my behavior? What was I going to do? I had to make a decision, and I had to make it before I got back to the ship.
The whole time I was checking out the lift I thought about it; what to do; how to act. I couldn’t help but think about the differences in the two teams. If hatch team Foxtrot was the best team at the piers, Charlie had to be the worst. The two teams were as different as night and day. If Yogi and Booboo ever just up and disappeared, Foxtrot would continue to do its job. The whole team could operate leaderless; everybody knew what needed to be done and nobody required instruction or prompting. On Charlie, it was a different story entirely. Nobody on the team seemed to be motivated to do anything unless they were told to - instructed to. I’d seen no evidence of individual initiative at all.
Finally, I decided that the best way to handle it, the best way to act, would be to lead by example. From now on I’d just keep my mouth shut and show ‘em how to do it. Every job, every procedure, I’d just jump in and do it - show ‘em how to do it - and maybe, just maybe ...
Checking out the lift was a hoot. The guys that ran the forklift yard worked in shifts, too. These guys had always worked this shift; they didn’t know me and I didn’t know them. They’d never seen my smilin’ face before, so when I walked up and asked for the keys to ‘that big gray sucker over there’, the guy I was talking to gave me a big-time once-over.
“You got a license?”
“Now would I be askin’ you for the keys to a lift I didn’t have a license for?”
“I don’t remember seein’ you around. You new?”
“Got transferred over from the other shift.”
At first he’d been looking at me eye-to-eye. But now, his eyes seemed to be focused on the front of my shirt. Suddenly, he sniffed the air. Then, he looked back up at me with a quizzical stare.
“You sick or somethin’?”
“Why didn’t you go to sick bay?”
“They ain’t got no pills for what I got.”
He sniffed the air again. He continued to stare at me; eye-to-eye for a moment; then he focused on my shirt again.
“Could I please have the keys? I got a hole full of jeeps, hoss; and I’d like to get started on it before lunch if I could.”
He still didn’t seem to know what to make of me, but my feigned attempt at humor worked.
He walked over to the bulkhead, grabbed a key off a nail and tossed it to me.
“Be sure to top it off ‘fore you turn it in.”
“Don’t I always?”
“I don’t know. Do you?”
He broke out in a big smile.
“Hell, yea! Rama Rama!”
As I was walking away, the other guy in the forklift shack blurted out a question.
“What does Rama, Rama mean?”
“You ain’t seen Rama yet? It’s a movie! Aw, man! You gotta see Rama!”
Those big motherfuckers were somethin’ else. I’d never driven one before, but I’d seen Bullwinkle and Tweety operate them; they were licensed; and watching them ... hell ... they made it seem like a piece of cake! BUT IT WAS NO PIECE OF CAKE!
It took me four of five minutes just to figure out how to crank the sucker. When I finally got that figured out, it took another four or five minutes to figure out how the ‘raise’ and ‘tilt’ levers worked. Then, there was the swivel! That really took some getting used to!
The unit was so big that it had a swivel mechanism that junctioned the front part of the body to the rear. Driving the thing was a lot like driving a tractor-trailer truck. Once you got the hang of it, it was relatively easy to do; to operate. But I didn’t have the hang of it; not yet, anyway. I just hoped and prayed I could get it out of the yard and back to the pier without looking like an idiot.
The whole time I was figuring the sucker out, I kept looking over at the forklift shack. I figured the guy who’d given me the key would be watching me, to see if I knew what I was doing. Ordinarily, he probably would have been. But he wasn’t. He was busy talking to the other guy, and I could tell what he was talking about. He was explaining the movie; he was filling the guy in on ‘Rama’. The guy doing the talking was totally involved in his explanation; and the guy he was talking to was listening attentively; smiling; laughing occasionally, totally absorbed in the story.
I finally knew enough, felt comfortable enough, to make a run for the pier. I figured out where reverse was, backed it out, slammed it in forward and hit the gas. It acted like it wanted to choke out a few times; belched and bounced and bobbed, but once I got it moving I knew I was home free. I looked down at the gas gauge. It was reading half full. The guy who’d used it last was supposed to top it off before turning it in. But he hadn’t. I figured half a tank was enough. But if it wasn’t, I’d bring it back to the yard and top it off during lunch. There was no way I was going to top it off now. What if it choked out on me? And if it did, would I be able to get it cranked again? I pointed that sucker toward the pier and almost looked like I knew what I doing as I hauled butt back to the ship.
When I got to pier, I turned and drove down the right side like I was supposed to. Traffic on the pier was supposed to move like traffic on a highway back in the states; you always kept your vehicle to the right. I knew I was going to have to park it; I knew the hole wouldn’t be ready yet, that I was going to go and help the others; show them how - the proper way - to un-gripe the jeeps. As soon as I turned onto the pier I realized I was going way too fast. You always parked a lift that wouldn’t be in use for a while in the center of the pier. That way, it would be out of the way of the traffic moving back and forth on either side. I also realized that I didn’t know how sensitive the brakes were. Were they tight? Or were they loose? I didn’t know; but I found out in a hurry. I made the turn to pull in and park; I hit the brake at the same time. The brakes were tight. REAL TIGHT! As soon as I hit the brakes, they locked up! The rear of the lift, brakes locked tight and rear tires smoking, swung around. Miraculously, the whole unit came to a halt perfectly centered in the middle of the pier. I hadn’t meant for that to happen, but it appeared, to all who were lookin’ on, that I was exactly what they’d thought I’d been earlier; a smart-alec, conceited, ass-on-his-shoulders sailor who just happened to be a damn good forklift driver. I’m sure they all thought that I’d meant to slam on the brakes and bring the damn thing to rest, tires squealing, slap-dab in the center of the pier.
As soon as I killed the engine, I grabbed the key and jumped down to the pier. An unattended lift wouldn’t stay there for long. If somebody needed to use it, and the key was still in the ignition, it would disappear in a heartbeat.
I was eager to get down in the hole and show the guys the proper way to un-gripe the jeeps. As I ran up the gangway, I passed two members of the team that were headed in the opposite direction. Browder had obviously detailed them to unhook the loads on the pier. I figured we could make better time if we all worked to un-gripe the stuff first, so I stopped, turned and politely suggested that they come back to the hole to help out.
“Hey, guys. Why don’t you come and give us a hand in the hole?”
One of them was tall. The other was a little short dude, maybe five-foot-five. The little one responded curtly:
“Fuck you, newbie!”
The tall one seemed shocked at what he’d said. He looked at him, then he looked at me with a ‘he said it, not me’ look on his face.
It took some doing, but I didn’t say what I wanted to say; what I felt like saying. I didn’t even know his mother. For all I knew, she was a fine, upstanding woman. I didn’t react physically the way I wanted to, either. I’d already deviated one man’s septum. I just stared at both of them for a moment, a glaring stare, then I turned and ran to the hole.
I climbed down as fast as I could. There were six men in the hole. Each man had picked out a jeep, and each one was working to un-gripe one of the turnbuckles. I was shocked to see that not only were all the jeeps still griped, not a single turnbuckle had been removed yet. If Foxtrot had been working this hole, every one of those jeeps would be free by now; ready to lift; ready to unload.
As I made my way to one of the jeeps, to start un-griping it, I took a long, hard look at the others. There was something wrong with their appearance. I’d noticed it earlier, at muster, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. They’d looked different - different from all the other teams - but I hadn’t recognized what that difference was right off the bat. But now, seeing them in action, seeing the way they were working those turnbuckles, I knew exactly what the difference was.
Their uniforms were spotless! There was no evidence that their uniforms had ever been exposed to turnbuckle grease before. I’d gotten so much grease on my uniforms over the past three months that the grease had become part of the material. There was a blackish tint to my utilities, all of them. There was no blackish tint to any of theirs. And watching them work - the way they were handling the turnbuckles - I knew why. No part of their bodies, no part of their uniform, was on the deck. They were leaning over, reaching under the fenders on the jeeps and twisting the turnbuckles that way; or trying to, anyway. It was all you could do to even reach the things doing that. The turnbuckles were connected to the axles. A chain was wrapped around the axle and then hooked to one end of the turnbuckle. The chain on the other end was attached to an anchor point on the deck of the ship - right under the axle. No wonder it was taking forever. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t. I just got down on the deck - flat on my back - and slid myself under a jeep. ‘Slid myself’ describes the move perfectly. The deck was so covered in grease that I did - I literally SLID under the front bumper of the jeep I was working on. The back of my uniform was instantly covered in the black, grimy, gooey stuff.
In no time at all I’d disconnected the two turnbuckles in the front. I slid myself out, slid myself to the rear - still flat on my back - and then slid under the rear of the vehicle and disconnected the two there. Then, I slid myself over to another jeep and made short work of it as well. I finished up six jeeps all by myself - half the jeeps in the hole - and the others were still working to un-gripe their units; and all of them still had at least one more turnbuckle to go when I’d finished. I didn’t say anything, I just slid under another jeep and started back to work; finished it then moved to another; then another. Finally, all the jeeps were free; they were ready to lift.
When I finally stood up, I had turnbuckle grease all over the back of my uniform. It was caked on almost an inch thick in some places, and like always, it felt grimy and gooey; it was a cold, heavy, wet, uncomfortable feeling. I looked at the others. One had managed to get a little spot of grease on his pants leg. He had a rag - I don’t know where he’d gotten it - and he was busy trying to wipe the small spot away. I didn’t say anything, and I tried not to let my expression reveal what I was feeling, either. I just climbed out of the hole and ran down the gangway. There was a piece of cardboard on the pier, a remnant of a pallet of beer that one of the hatch teams had had to destroy while snaking the first loads out of a newly opened beer hole. I grabbed the piece of cardboard; bent it to shape; and then placed it in the seat on the forklift. I wouldn’t be able to keep the seat completely grease free, but at least I was making an effort, and I was sure that the next guy to check out that unit would appreciate my efforts, as feeble as they were.
Overall, the newbie working the winch did a fairly decent job. He banged the hell out of the first two or three lifts; bounced ‘em off the sides of the hatch opening, but by the fourth or fifth jeep he’d gotten the hang of it.
On the first lift, however, I slipped and let my feelings show. I was sitting in the seat on the forklift; watching. He lifted the load much too fast, and when it banged into the left side of the hatch, just as he got it topside, he brought the winch controls to neutral and turned and looked at me to see my reaction. I couldn’t help it; I started laughing; then I started singing; loudly:
“We represent the Lollipop Guild, the Lollipop Guild, the Lollipop Guild. We represent the Lollipop Guild. And we’d like to welcome you to Munchkin Land.”
I don’t think he knew what to make of my response. He kept staring at me. Did he want me to say something? Finally, I wiped the smile off my face - most of it anyway - then, I tried to encourage him.
“Go ahead. You’re doin’ great, honest. Slow and steady, slow and steady.”
The short guy working the pier just couldn’t resist taking a shot at me:
“You think you’re somethin’, don’t ya’, newbie?”
I couldn’t resist, either:
“How long you been here, dumb shit?”
“You heard me! When’d you get in-country?”
“Ain’t none of your god-damn business!”
“If it was September or later, it is.”
He just glared at me; angrily; hatefully. Then, all of a sudden, unexpectedly, the tall one chimed in:
“He got here in November; we both did.”
The short guy turned and jumped on his buddy verbally:
“God-damn-it! Shut-the-fuck-up! That ain’t none of his business!”
I didn’t say anything. I just smiled. I didn’t want to; I didn’t want to pour any more gas on the flame, but I couldn’t help it. The next jeep came over the side and plopped hard on the pier. It plopped so hard it bounced. The short guy just stood there, glaring at me. I raised the forks a couple of inches off the deck and prompted him to unhook the load.
“Don’t just stand there, newbie. Unhook the son-of-a-bitch!”
He took a step or two in my direction; menacingly; aggressively. The timber of my voice changed.
“Trust me, asshole! If you wanna dance, we can dance! But I don’t think you wanna dance with me!”
He stopped. He stared at me for a moment and then turned and walked back to unhook the jeep. He was mad; very mad. I knew that if we didn’t come to some resolution, some understanding - and soon - he and I would eventually come to blows. I didn’t want that to happen. But I was not going to let him intimidate me. I knew that I’d been an asshole earlier; and I was trying hard to change my attitude; to not be an asshole now, or in the future. But it was hard; very hard! It was very, very hard!
By lunch time we’d cleared the first level, removed the hatch covers from the second, and un-griped the twelve jeeps there. I went back down in the hole to help out. Two or three of the guys followed my lead and got down on their backs to get under the jeeps to do the un-griping. The rest kept doing it the way they’d done it before; they just didn’t want to get dirty.
Browder gave us the signal to break for chow as soon as he saw the chow truck pull through the gate.
We were the first team to reach the truck, and I was the first in line. I grabbed a plate like I always did; but no utensils. The chow attendant loaded my plate with a heaping helping of everything; green beans, rice & gravy, two pork chops and two rolls.
I made my way to a pier footer, put down my plate, then went back and got two cups which I filled up with iced tea. When I got back to my place at the footer, several of the others were already there, already eating. I sat down and placed my plate on my knees. I picked up one of the pork chops and stuck it in my mouth. I tore off a big chunk with my teeth and started chewing. Before I’d even swallowed that mouthful, I’d scooped up a fistful of rice and gravy and crammed it in my mouth. Some of the gravy had run down and pooled at the bottom of my fist. I quickly raised my fist to my mouth and licked it clean. I suddenly had this feeling that someone was staring at me. I looked up. They all were. They were all staring; every one of them. They just sat there, each of them, plastic fork in one hand and plastic knife in the other; staring at me; glaring at me.
I should have known. This was hatch team Charlie, it wasn’t Foxtrot. Their manners were impeccable; they’d have probably even made Emily Post proud. I immediately decided that I wasn’t going back to the chow truck for utensils. They’d just have to think whatever they wanted to think about my manners. I finished eating with my hands and then got up and walked over to the water containers. I washed my face and hands at the non-potable spigot and then drank my fill of drinking water from the potable spout.
Just as I was walking back to the ship, I saw Browder get up off the footer he was sitting on. Plate in one hand, cup of tea in the other, he started walking toward me.
“Hey, Powers. You got a minute?”
“Let’s go somewhere and talk.”
Browder and I walked around behind the water containers. He sat down on the asphalt and motioned for me to sit, too. I did. He placed his plate and cup on the ground in front of him and continued to eat while he talked.
“I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot with you, you obviously know a lot more about cargo handling and pier operations than I do. But I can’t let you go on talking to me like you talked to me this morning. I can’t let you ...”
I interrupted him.
“Hey. I was wrong. I shouldn’t have done that; I was totally out of line and I know it. It’s just that ... well ... I didn’t want that transfer. Any differences I had with my old team were settled a long time ago. I did ask the bosun for a transfer ... a long time ago ... but I didn’t want it when it came through.”
“When I got the word last night that I was being re-assigned, I wasn’t a happy camper. When I got back to Tien Sha I went straight to the E.M. club and got blasted.”
“But that’s water over the damn. I got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have acted like that, like an asshole, and I’m gonna do my best to keep from actin’ like that in the future.”
“Thanks. I’m glad to hear you say that.”
“I ain’t gonna take no shit off your people.”
“That’s gonna be a problem.”
“They don’t like you; most of ‘em, anyway.”
“I don’t doubt that. I’ll do what I can to smooth it over.”
“I wish you were rated. If you were rated that wouldn’t be a problem.”
“Don’t worry. I can put up with it for two more months.”
“I’ll be rated in two months. On February 15th. I’ll be an E-4 gunnersmate.”
“Have you already got your hardware?”
“But you have your paperwork; the form that says you’re being advanced in rate.”
“Tell you what you do. When you get back to Tien Sha tonight, get your paperwork and go to the PX and buy your hardware; then wear it to work tomorrow.”
“You heard me. As far as I’m concerned, you’re an E-4 now. You’ve made the rate, you’re just putting on the hardware two months early.”
“What’s the boson gonna say? Can I do that?”
He smiled. It was a big, Cheshire cat, wide-eyed smile.
“I don’t know! I ain’t no god-damn mind reader!”
I broke out laughing. He did, too. He’d turned the tables on me; he’d used the same, stupid, smart-alec response I’d used on him earlier in the day.
“Seriously. Can I do that?”
“The boson knows you made rate, right?”
“Ain’t no way he can remember what increment. I betcha’ ten bucks he won’t even notice.”
“What if he does? He’s a pretty smart cookie, you know.”
“If he calls us on it, I’ll take the heat.”
There was a short pause. Browder continued to eat.
“Why are you doin’ this? You figure my bein’ an E-4 will keep the others off my ass?”
“They’re all E-2s and E-3s. Right now, I’m the only rated person on the team. Yea, I figure they won’t be givin’ you any shit if you’re an E-4. But I KNOW they won’t be givin’ you any shit if you’re an assistant hatch team captain.”
“You have to be rated to be an assistant captain. E-4 is rated. When you show up for work tomorrow, you’ll be my assistant.”
“What are you gon’ say when they ask you why I wasn’t wearin’ the hardware today?”
“Now that it ain’t none of their business, is it?”
I smiled. He smiled. That moment - that conversation - was the beginning of a warm friendship. Browder didn’t know his butt from a hole in the ground about stevedoring, but he was a damn good petty officer. He cared about the welfare of his men, and he treated everybody fairly. I admired him for that, and we came to be pretty close over the weeks and months that followed.
We took the full twenty minutes for lunch. When Browder got through eating, we got up and started walking back to the ship. The rest of the team fell in behind us. While we were walking, Browder asked me a question.
“Why do you have those four pieces of tape on your hard hat?”
“Each strip of tape represents an accident that involved an injury or a situation where my life was in danger.”
“Here at the piers?”
“Jesus! Do all the teams do that; on the other shift?”
“No. Just Foxtrot.”
“Damn! What happened?”
“It’s a long story. Right now, let’s go move some tons. Remind me later if you really wanna know and I’ll tell you about it.”
“Don’t worry. I will.”
We managed to finish the entire hole, all three levels, by the end of the shift. When we boarded the cattle car for the ride back to Tien Sha, the whole team boarded the same car. Browder and I sat next to each other. All of the others were sitting in seats close by.
“So, tell me about the tape.”
I explained what the tape meant one more time. I knew Browder knew, but I explained it again knowing that the others would be listening.
I explained the incident at the fence; about getting knocked off the ship; about getting nailed with the crowbar and the fifteen foot fall; about getting my legs cut out from under me by the wire rope. The whole time I was talking to Browder, I was looking at the expressions on the faces of the others. They were wide-eyed. They hung on every word throughout my explanation. When I was done, nobody said anything. I finished my explanation just as the cattle car stopped on the side-street by the barracks. I got up and stepped off. I walked, by myself, back to my barrack. Just as I got to the stoop, I heard someone yell:
I turned and responded.
“You’re all right..”
It was the tall guy. The short sucker was standing right next to him. I directed my gaze toward him and spoke; warmly; courteously; lying through my teeth.
“Good job today, newbie.”
It took a second, but he answered me.
I turned and walked into my berthing area.
I had the whole place to myself. Everybody berthed in my berthing area worked the other shift. They would never be there when I was; and I’d never be there when they were. I was sure that there was probably a rule or regulation that stated that all personnel working a certain shift had to be berthed together. But the berthing area I was in was home; and it had been my home for the past 3 1/2 months. My bunk measured approximately 3’ x 6’. My locker was 4’ wide and approximately 2’ deep. That small area, some 26 square feet, contained everything I owned; every earthly possession I had. Unless someone ordered me to leave - to move to another berthing area - I wasn’t going to.
I undressed, grabbed a towel and a change of skivvies and headed off to the shower. After taking a shower, I went back to the barrack and put on a fresh set of utilities. Then, I searched through my locker and found the paper I’d been given authorizing my advance-ment in rate to E-4. I grabbed the paper, locked my locker, and went to the PX to buy my hardware.
I assumed, from what Browder had said, that the PX cashier would need to see the authorization form to sell me the E-4 hardware. I browsed through the PX and finally found the area where they had military insignia on display. I found the Navy section, and the E-4 insignia, and picked out four black collar devices and 2 black cover (hat) devices. I then went to an area where they had clocks and watches on display. I picked out an inexpensive, wind-up alarm clock and then I went to the check-out counter.
The PX employed civilian Vietnamese women to work check-out. I placed the devices and the clock on the counter. The young lady working the register started ringing up my total. She didn’t ask to see my paperwork, she just said, in perfect English:
“Thank you, sir. Will there be anything else?”
I thought for a moment and then responded.
“Yea. I forgot something. Can I run back and get it real quick, it’ll only take a second.”
I ran back to the insignia area and picked out two E-5 collar devices and one E-5 cover device. I ran back to the counter and she rang them up as well.
I don’t know why I bought the E-5 devices; I guess I did it because I could. But in the back of my mind I was thinking that when I got to my next duty station, no one would know who I was for a while; or what rate I was. I’d learned that lesson from Guns. Just for grins, I wanted to have the devices. Maybe, at some point in the future, I’d be able to enjoy a few cool ones in an Acey Deucy club rather than put up with the drunk, childish, E-2s, E-3s and E-4s in the Navy’s E.M. clubs.
I paid for everything and went straight back to the barracks. I put two of the E-4 devices on my collars and one of the cover devices on my utility cap.
One of the guys in the barrack had a full-length mirror on the bulkhead next to his locker. I went to the mirror and looked at myself; at the devices on my uniform. They looked good. Damn good! I winked at the image in the mirror and gave him a thumbs up sign. I couldn’t help but notice that I looked like a mule eating briars; the grin on my face looked absolutely ridiculous. I made a conscious effort to do away with the grin - most of it anyway - and then headed off to the chow hall for supper.
When I got back to the barrack, I lay down on my bunk and started reading a magazine; a Playboy magazine. I’d borrowed it; it had been laying there; on the bunk next to mine; inviting me; seducing me; beggin me to pick it up. Thirty or forty minutes later, just as I was getting ready to turn in for the night, I looked up and noticed that the guy right across the aisle from me had an Akai reel-to-reel tape recorder. It, too, was sitting there; on a table right next to his bunk. A lot of the guys had similar machines, but all the others had locked their units in their lockers. I remember thinking that this guy was a mighty trusting soul.
All of the guys with recorders had headphones. When a pair of headphones was plugged into the headphone jack on these units, that connection would over-ride the speaker output. In other words, when the headphones were plugged in, the self-contained speakers didn’t work. That way, by using the headphones, each guy could listen to his own music; nobody else could hear; the barracks would be relatively quiet and the fellows who wanted to sleep could do so without being disturbed.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the recorder. Suddenly, an idea crept into my mind. If he was going to just leave the thing out like that, in the open, where anybody who wanted to could get at it, I could use it and he’d never know. I thought about it for a time, but finally, after a lot of soul-searching, I nixed the idea. It just wouldn’t be right; it wasn’t my machine. To listen to it, to use it without permission, would be wrong. I put the recorder out of my mind, turned out the lights and hit the rack.
Day two on Charlie went better than I expected it to. When I reported for work that morning I was wearing my new E-4 hardware. Browder explained to the team that he’d made me his assistant hatch team captain. Some of them seem surprised to see me wearing the insignia, but no one said anything.
Ordinarily, captains and assistant captains just supervised, they didn’t physically do any manual labor. But right off the bat I jumped in and worked right along with the others. I could have driven a forklift or worked the winch - the easier jobs - but I let the others get experience in those areas. I spent most of day two down in the hole doing grunt work. The guys in the hole seemed to appreciate the fact that, as an E-4, as their assistant captain, I was willing to do that. We worked rolling stock again, and by the end of the day, everybody was on their backs, sliding through the goo, doing the un-griping. We made short work of the holes, too, and my expectations began to rise. Maybe, just maybe, we could be in the running for ‘Hatch Team of the Month’ in a month or so.
One day at muster, just out of the blue, the boson told us that we didn’t have to report for work on Christmas day. The piers would be shut down completely for 24 hours; both shifts would have the day off. It was sometime in late December when we got the word, and everybody got really excited. Most of the teams hadn’t had a day off - a rested day off - since they’d been there. Only the most outstanding team on each shift ever got an off-day - one, full, rested day off every other month - and generally, it was the same team; the most outstanding team on that shift.
One morning, late in December, the boson asked me and Browder to hang around after muster. We gave the men their job assignments and dispatched them to the ship we were working. Browder told them to go ahead and get started, that we’d be along later.
The boson had a special assignment he wanted me to take care of the following day, and he wanted to make sure that it was OK with Browder.
“Browder. I hate to do this to you, but I need to borrow Powers tomorrow to take care of a problem we’ve got back in the weapons shack.”
“Sure, Boats. I guess we can do without him for a day.”
“That’s all it should take. Go on back to your team. Powers, if you can hang around for a minute or two I’ll explain our situation.”
Browder excused himself, then the boson explained the problem.
“Powers, we’ve got a roof leak in the weapons room out back. Nobody ever goes back there, so we didn’t know we had the problem till Edwards went in to get a .45 the other day and noticed that the outboard wall was wet. I guess we’ve had the problem for quite some time - probably all through monsoon season - and, well ... all that water, and all the heat, the humidity ... every damn weapon back there has started to rust.”
“That ain’t good.”
“No. It’s not. What I want you to do, if you don’t mind, is take everything we’ve got over to the armory at Tien Sha tomorrow and clean ‘em up. I’ve already talked to the chief over there and he says they can set you up with everything you need to do the job.”
“The Seabees are sending some guys over tomorrow, too - to fix the leak - so by the time you get ‘em all cleaned up, by the time you get back here with ‘em, we shouldn’t have a moisture problem anymore.”
The boson paused and scratched his head for a moment.
“I hate to do this to you, but if I sent the stuff over for them to do, hell ... the chief said it might take them a month or so to get to it. But if I send YOU over to do it, you should be able to take care of it in one day.”
“Good. Tell you what. They won’t be ready for you till 9 or 10 in the mornin’, the armory has to set you up a work station and all, so why don’t you just sleep in in the mornin’. I’ll send my driver to pick you up at the barracks around 8 or so. How does that sound?”
“I don’t mind doing without the weapons in the daytime. The V.C. ain’t hit us when the sun was shinin’ ever since I’ve been here. But I wouldn’t want to be without those weapons at night. OK?”
“Good. I don’t want anybody to miss a day off, so if you could get this taken care of tomorrow, I’d appreciate it.”
For a brief moment, I wondered what he meant when he said he didn’t want anybody to miss a day off. I started to ask him, but the comment had been so innocuous that I just let it go.
When I got back to the barracks that night, I set my alarm clock for 7 the following morning.
When the alarm went off, I got up, got dressed, and then went and had a leisurely breakfast at the chow hall. After breakfast, I went back to the barrack and sat on the stoop. At 8 o’clock sharp the boson’s driver drove up. He took me back to the piers and helped me load all the weapons into the back of the jeep.
There were fifty-five M-16s, twenty-one M-14s, ten Colt .45 caliber pistols and five .38 caliber revolvers. I checked every weapon to make sure they weren’t loaded, and as a precaution, I made sure that all, except the .38s, had their safety mechanisms engaged. The .38s didn’t have safeties.
The guys at the armory had set me up a work area and I was able to get started as soon as I got there. I went right to work on the M-16s. I had a large vat of solvent to soak the disassembled barrel assemblies and stocks in. I had a smaller vat for the internal pieces. I cleaned the M-14s next. While the M-14s were soaking, I cleaned all the sidearms.
Sometime around lunch time, I broke for chow and as I was walking past one of the other gunnersmates, I noticed that he was handling a strange looking device.
“How does it work?”
“Come here, I’ll show ya’.”
And he did. He gave me a quick, ten-minute, impromptu lesson on what a claymore was and how it was set and triggered.
Overall, it took eleven hours to disassemble, clean and reassemble everything, and when I got done, at around 8 o’clock that night, I called the piers and told the boson I was ready. He sent the duty driver to pick me up and we had all the weapons secured and back in the weapons room by 9:15.
I got back to the barrack around 9:40. I got a quick shower, set my alarm, turned out the lights and hit the rack.
When the alarm woke me up the following morning, I got up, got dressed and headed for the chow hall. Right off the bat I noticed that something was different. Usually, there would already be a hundred-or-so people there; eating; but this time, there were only a handful; maybe 15 or 20. I remember thinking that something was wrong. Where were all the other hatch team guys? Finally, I just figured that most of them had decided to forego breakfast and sleep late. The work days at the piers had been rougher than usual lately, so that had to be it; they were tired; they were just catching a few extra winks. When I finished eating, I got up, took my tray to the service window and then walked back over to the barrack to board a cattle car for the piers.
When I got to the side-street where the cattle cars usually loaded, I was in for a big surprise. The cattle cars weren’t there! And instead of the twenty or thirty guys that were usually already there, waiting for the cars to load, there was only a single, solitary figure. I asked him the obvious question.
“Where is everybody?”
“I don’t know,” he responded.
I knew right off the bat that the guy was a newbie. His uniform was new; I could smell that sweet, pungent factory smell; the damn things hadn’t even been washed yet.
“Where’s the cattle car?”
“I don’t know. Is this the right place? Is this where you catch it?”
His question seemed to re-affirm my suspicion. He was definitely a newbie, and this was probably his first day at the piers.
“Tell you what, newbie. You wait here. If the cattle cars come, tell ‘em to stand by. Don’t let ‘em leave, you hear me?”
“I ain’t no sir.”
No doubt about it; he was definitely a newbie; and probably just out of boot camp, too.
I went back to the barrack. Just as I stepped up on the stoop, I heard a familiar, unmis-takable diesel sound. I looked back and saw a single cattle car turn onto the side-street. I immediately ran into the nearest day shift berthing area. What I saw surprised me. Every rack was occupied and all the men were asleep. I flipped on the light switch and yelled as loud as I could:
“Everybody up! It’s 6:40! You’ve only got five minutes to get ready! Come on, people! Turn to!”
Every head seemed to raise up off its pillow at the same time. One of the guys threw his pillow at me. The one nearest to me, in the first bunk on the left, reached over and looked at his alarm clock. Then he turned and blessed me out.
“Jesus, man! What-the-hell are you doin’?”
“I’m tryin’ to keep you from goin’ to the brig, that’s what!”
“It’s Christmas day, you fool! We’re off! We don’t have to work today!”
“Get-the-fuck outta here, asshole!”
“Yea, and turn out the god-damn lights, dumb-ass!”
“And don’t let the screen door hit ya’!”
Suddenly, all at once, I was hit with a barrage of pillows. They came flying at me from everywhere, from every direction. I quickly turned off the light and backed out the door.
For a brief moment, I just stood there on the stoop trying to make sense of the situation. If it was, indeed, Christmas day, then we did have the day off. But why had that cattle car just driven up? I made my way back to the side-street, and lo-and-behold, there was a cattle car there; parked where the cattle cars always parked. But there was only one! That didn’t make any sense! As I hurried toward the cattle car I saw a second figure, a senior chief, talking to the newbie.
“Hey, newbie. Is it Christmas day?”
“Then you can go back to bed, the piers are closed, we’ve got the day off!”
“The piers ... Deep Water Piers ... they’re closed! We don’t have to go to work today!”
“Piers? I don’t work at the piers.”
“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I’m here to catch the cattle car to the Bob Hope show in DaNang.”
“Bob Hope show?”
“Yea. I just got in-country yesterday. There’s a sign posted in transient barracks. It says that a cattle car will load up here at 7 a.m. this mornin’. It’s gonna take us to the Bob Hope show in DaNang. Ain’t that great? We’re gonna get to see Bob Hope!”
I couldn’t stop the smile. I couldn’t help but laugh. What a dumb, stupid, idiotic fool. A month from now he’d be dreamin’ about sleeping late; getting a day off; resting his tired, aching, worn-out muscles. But right now, all he could think about, all that mattered to him, was seeing Bob Hope in DaNang. I just shook my head and made a comment under my breath:
‘You dumb, stupid son-of-a-bitch!’
Suddenly, out of nowhere, another pier sailor walked up.
“What’s goin’ on? Why’s there only one car?”
“We’ve got the day off. It’s Christmas!”
“Holy shit! I forgot!”
“See ya’ ‘round, hoss. I’m goin’ back to bed.”
“Yea. Me, too.”
As we turned and headed back toward the barrack, the senior chief spoke up:
“Where you guys goin?”
I responded politely:
“No-the-hell you ain’t! Both of you ... get on the cattle car ... now!”
The pier sailor responded cautiously:
I responded curtly:
“Both of you ... on the car ... now!”
“Bullshit! I ain’t goin’ to no Bob Hope Show! I don’t wanna go to no Bob Hope show!”
“Want to or not ... you’re goin’!”
“Gentlemen. The commanding officer of Navsuppact DaNang has ordered me to fill this car with sailors. When it’s full, it’s going to the Bob Hope show in DaNang. Now, both of you, board the car or you’re on report!”
The other guy started walking toward the car. I hesitated for a moment. I was trying to figure out what to say. I was looking for the right words, the right non-confrontational words of protest. But I couldn’t think of anything; no words came to mind.
I had nothing against Bob Hope, I don’t want to be misunderstood in that regard, but I was tired, and I’d already done the math: I had 14 more months to do in-country. And now, I was on hatch team Charlie. If I stayed at the piers for the rest of my tour, this day off - for Christmas - might be the last day off I’d get for a whole year. At best, the only other day off I might get would be NEXT CHRISTMAS DAY! Under those circumstances, I didn’t want to see Bob Hope, I wanted to go back to bed.
I wanted to protest, to resist being forced to go, but I was reluctant to tangle with a senior chief. As the pier sailor boarded the car - and as I started to - I stopped and stared the chief straight in the eyes.
“I don’t want to argue with you, but can you legally order us to go somewhere - on our off time - if we don’t want to go?”
He didn’t say anything, he just reached in his pocket and pulled out a white piece of paper. He unfolded it and handed it to me. The printing at the top indicated that the message was from the commanding officer of Navsuppact DaNang - the big cheese himself. The words typed on the page were few; but one line in particular caught my attention:
‘Chief Collins has been instructed by this command to RECRUIT naval personnel from Camp Tien Sha to attend the Bob Hope show in DaNang, and I trust that every sailor RECRUITED will voluntarily attend.’
That one paragraph brought my current situation into sharp focus. It didn’t say, in so many words, that I had to go to the Bob Hope show. But - in Navy talk - that’s exactly what it meant. To be more specific, the commanding officer of Navsuppact DaNang was saying, loud and clear, that:
‘Powers, if you don’t go, chief Collins has my permission to write your dumb, stupid, ugly ass up, lock you in the brig and throw away the fuckin’ key!’
I re-folded the piece of paper and handed it back to the chief. Then, dejected, with head down and shoulders stooped, I boarded the cattle car and took a seat in the back.
Suddenly, just a moment or two after I sat down, I realized why the chief had parked his cattle car outside our barrack. He knew that the guys at the piers had the day off, and that the night shift teams would be arriving in just a matter of minutes. His plan was obvious, he was going to hijack the first men off the cars; force them to board his cattle car, and force them to go to the Bob Hope Show in DaNang. My mind raced as I tried to come up with an idea that might encourage him to change his plans. The thought hit me instantly, just out of the blue, and I ran to the front of the car to make a suggestion to the chief.
“Hey, chief. There’s a whole mess of folks over at the chow hall. If you’re lookin’ to hijack people, why don’t you get your driver to move this crate over there.”
“Now why would I wanna do that? In about five minutes I’m gonna be able to recruit as many men as I need.”
“That’s fine. But they’re all gonna stink to high heaven; and they’re gonna be covered from head to foot in grease and grime and goo. Now you don’t want Bob Hope to see a bunch of sailors that look and smell like that, do you? I don’t think that’s what the C.O. of Navsuppact had in mind.”
The chief didn’t reply, but for a long moment he seemed to be in deep thought about what I’d just said. Then, all of a sudden, he walked around to the front of the car. A minute or so later I heard the engine crank. A few seconds later, the chief reappeared and took a seat in the car. He tapped hard on the bulkhead to let the driver know he was good to go and a moment or two later the car pulled out and headed for the chow hall.
It didn’t take long to fill up the car. Guys were coming out of the chow hall in threes, fours, fives and sixes. The chief rounded them up group by group. They protested loudly; he pulled out his paper; they read it; they protested some more; he cussed them out vigorously; they protested some more; he threatened them with a captain’s mast, and then, just fifteen or twenty minutes after we got there, the car was loaded and we were on the highway headed toward China Beach.
We got to the venue where the Bob Hope show would be held some three hours before it started. Because we got there so early, we had great seats. I was sitting on the third row back just to the left of the stage, just fifteen to twenty feet from the performers.
Although I didn’t want to be there, I must admit that the show was great. It seemed to go on forever, and there was never a dull moment; it was one great ‘one-liner’ after another; vintage Hope. Hope was great, but my favorite performer was a guy named Jerry. He was a little, dark-complected guy with a black, handle-bar mustache. He took the brunt of Hope’s jokes and everybody in the audience belly-laughed at his antics.
When the show was over, it took forever for our cattle car to fight its way through the traffic and get back to the main highway. We all breathed a sigh of relief when it looked like we were on our way home, but the chief quickly threw us a curve. Unbeknown to us, he’d instructed the cattle car driver to drive over to Gunfighter Village, an Air Force base near the site of the show. Seems he had a friend there (an Air Force sergeant) that he wanted to see.
The whole cattle car full of sailors bitched and complained while the chief and his friend went off to drink a few cool ones together. I’ve never seen a madder bunch in my life. We were mad at the chief, and we were dying of thirst, but we were afraid to leave the car, afraid the chief would come back and the cattle car would leave without us. Finally, I got so thirsty that I had to do something about it, so I roamed off by myself trying to find something cold.
I found an E.M. club and went inside. I bought a cold coke and then went back outside. Once outside, I could see the cattle car. The driver wasn’t in the cab, he’d gone off to find him something cold to drink, too, so I thought I’d walk around a bit and scope out the base.
Keeping the cattle car in view, I walked to a point where I could watch the crews working the flight line. They were something else. I quickly changed my opinion about the Air Force. Prior to enlisting, when I was still trying to decide what branch of the service to join, I hadn’t even given the Air Force any consideration. Back then, everybody I’d ever known who’d been in the Air Force (except my cousin, Charles Reynolds) had been a wimp or a sissy. That opinion quickly changed.
The weapons crews were busting their butts the whole time we were there. It was an incredible sight; fighter jets would land, and before they’d even cooled down, the crews were preparing to rack them up with another load of ordnance. Handling bombs, handling high explosives, that was something I don’t think I could have done. The possibility that I might have to do that had been my greatest fear when I’d been assigned to the piers, and I was relieved when I found out we didn’t have to do that job.
While watching the weapons crews work, it occurred to me: ‘It’s Christmas day; these guys are humpin’ it on Christmas day; they didn’t even get Christmas off!’ I never looked on the Air Force the same way after that. And since that day, I’ve had nothing but the greatest respect for the MEN IN BLUE.
About two hours later, the chief finally showed up. He was wasted; he was one shot away from being knee-crawling drunk.
We didn’t get back to Tien Sha until very late in the evening. I went straight to the shower. I got back to my rack around 11:55. Just as I was about to turn in I heard a tremendous volley of gunfire. I didn’t have on anything but my skivvies, but I ran out the door to see what was going on. For as far as the eye could see, all around Camp Tien Sha, for miles in every direction, there were red tracer rounds flying straight up into the air. I finally figured out that it was just friendly fire; it was just American servicemen closing out the Christmas holiday with some fireworks. The firing only lasted until just after midnight, then it stopped. I went back to my rack and turned in.
Tracer rounds are bullets that are coated with an incendiary compound. When fired from a weapon, the incendiary compound ignites as it travels through the barrel and the round burns brightly as it flies toward the target. Servicemen usually loaded their own clips, and they’d load a tracer round every three, four or five rounds so that they could see where their rounds were going, especially at night. Fifty caliber and M-60 ammunition came belted and boxed from the factory, and every fifth round was a tracer.
All American tracers were red. All Soviet, Chinese and Czechoslovakian-made tracers were green, and all three of those countries were supplying ammunition to the N.V.A. and the Vietcong.
Six day later, at 11:55 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, 1969, there were red tracers flying up into the night sky again. Just like before, on Christmas night, I walked outside to watch. For five full minutes, for miles and miles and miles, all around DaNang, the whole sky was filled with red tracers.
Then, just at the stroke of midnight, just as the first seconds of 1970 were ticking by - while the sky was still filled with red tracers - the sky began to fill with green tracers, too. The green tracers went up and mixed with the red; it was an awesome sight! They were everywhere; they were going up in every direction. Some were ten or twelve miles away; others were three or four miles away; but some were only a mile or so away! Just a minute or so later, the red alert siren went off.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression; the sky wasn’t filled with green; there were probably only twenty or thirty weapons firing green tracers in the midst of the hundred or so that were firing red, but seeing even that small amount of green was a shock; especially the rounds that were being fired in close proximity to the base.
One weapon in particular was very close. It was so close, in fact, that we could hear the ‘pop, pop, pop, pop, pop’ as it fired. There was no mistaking that sound; those rounds were being fired from an AK-47; and they were being fired from less than a mile away; right in the middle of ‘Shantytown’, a hodge-podge of little lean-to shacks that were right across the road from our barrack; right across the road from the western boundary of the Tien Sha perimeter fence.
The military phonetic alphabet was an invaluable tool in a war zone. Spelling words out phonetically, especially over a radio, prevented misunderstandings with regard to what one party might be saying to another party on the other end of the line. For example, the letters ‘E’, ‘V’, ‘C’, ‘D’ and ‘B’ all have the same ‘ending’ sound. To make sure that one is not misunderstood, certain words - especially words of great importance - are spelled out when used in radio transmissions. The military had adopted the phonetic alphabet many, many years earlier. Our hatch teams at the piers were named after the first eight words in the military phonetic alphabet.
Accordingly, the phonetic reference for the Vietcong - the V.C. - was ‘Victor Charlie’. Over the years, the word Victor was dropped and the Vietcong were simply referred to as ‘Charlie’.
As soon as those green tracers had gone up, the damn red alert siren had gone off, and we stayed on alert status for most of the night.
Most of the guys at Tien Sha knew that there was nothing to fear; that those green tracers didn’t portend some great attack. We knew that they were just Charlie’s calling card. Charlie just wanted to remind us that he was still there; that he was everywhere; and that not only was he everywhere, in some cases, he was really close by! Hell! In our case, he was just right across the road!
The fireworks only lasted for five or ten minutes, and almost everybody went back to their barracks and went to bed as soon as the show was over. We went to bed, but nobody got any sleep. The damn red alert siren kept going off about every thirty minutes. I had the next twelve hours off. Hatch team Charlie was making the transition from days to nights; we’d get the next 12 hours off while the night crew guys doubled-up and worked the next shift on days. I was damn glad, too. I got very little sleep that night.
One morning in early January, I got back to the barrack after a relatively easy night at the piers. I hadn’t thought much about the tape recorder in a while, but for some reason, it was the first thing I noticed when I walked in the door. And when I saw it, it seemed to be calling out to me; begging to be used. It was an impulse, a stupid, ridiculous, selfish decision that I made right on the spot. I couldn’t resist the temptation. The devil in me kept saying ‘what-the-hell, the guy’ll never know’, so I ran over to the PX to buy some tapes.
When I got to the PX, I went straight to the area where they had tapes (albums) on display. And bingo! Right off the bat I found a copy of the Lightfoot tape I’d listened to at the Tape Library when I’d first come in-country. They had an Ian & Sylvia tape, too, and one by Peter, Paul and Mary. I bought all three and rushed back to the barrack.
For the next week or so I played my tapes on the guy’s machine. I’d always make sure to leave the thing just like I’d found it. His headphones were always hooked up. I’d disconnect them and listen to my stuff over the built-in speakers. I had to always remember to hook his headphones back up when I was done. Sometimes, he’d leave one of his tapes on the feeder reel. I’d take it off, listen to one of mine, and then cue his tape back up when I was done. Most of the time, however, the machine would just have the take-up reel on the right spindle and that was all.
One day, two or three weeks later, I fell asleep listening to the Ian & Sylvia tape. When the alarm clock woke me up that evening, I didn’t pay any attention to the fact that the machine was still on; that my Ian & Sylvia tape had run out on the take-up reel. I got up, got dressed, went to chow, and then boarded the cattle car for the ride to the piers.
When I got back to the barrack the following morning, there was a note lying on my bunk. The message was short and sweet:
‘Hey, asshole! I don’t mind if you use my machine, but you should’ve asked for permission first. I ain’t mad or nothin’. Honest. And you can even keep usin’ it if you’ll let me keep listenin’ to this Ian & Sylvia tape. It’s great! Signed, B.P.’
That morning, I used his machine again. And that evening, just before I left the barrack, I left the Ian & Sylvia tape on his feeder reel and placed the other two tapes on top of the recorder. When I got back to the barrack the following morning, there was another note:
‘Great stuff! If you’ve got anything else, I’d like to hear it.’
I have no idea who B.P. was. We never met. We swapped tapes for the rest of the time I was in DaNang. I’ve always marveled at the fact that we had the same initials, but we never met. I would love to know who B.P. was, and maybe, some day before the grim reaper calls, I’ll find out.
One day in mid-January, a funny looking ship pulled into the outboard slip on pier one. When we reported for work that night, we all noticed it. It was really strange looking.
From the water line to the deck level it looked just like any other cargo vessel. But just behind the superstructure, just behind the Bridge, there was a crane tower. The long, working arm of the crane was laying in a horizontal, resting position on a large, metal pedestal mount that had been secured to the fantail (rear) of the ship. When the ship was underway, at sea, the crane arm was secured to the pedestal, but when the ship was in port the crane arm was released from its secured position on the pedestal and raised so that it could be used to work the cargo.
When we reported for work that night, and saw the ship, we wondered why the crane was still secured to the pedestal. Whatever time it came in during the day, some hatch team should have already been working the ship. If it had come in late in the day, surely the ship’s crew would have already made the crane ready for one of our teams to use during night operations. Something strange was going on, we all knew that; we just didn’t know what.
Our suspicions about the ship were confirmed a short time later. The hatch team captains seemed to be very upset when they came out of Alpha Shack after getting their hole assignments. Browder, in particular, had a very serious look on his face. As soon as he came out, he walked right over to where I was standing.
“Powers. We’ve got an opportunity to make a lot of tons tonight. If at all possible, I’d like to make those tons, but we can’t do it unless you’re willing to do something you’ve never done before.”
“That ship with the crane on it, that funky bastard out-board on pier one, is loaded to the gills with rolling stock. We’re only 360 tons behind the lead team on our shift. We’ve got a real chance to make Hatch Team of the Month, but we’re gonna need some big tons to make it. Workin’ that ship would get us close.”
“I hear ya’. But what is it I’d have to do that I’ve never done before?”
“Work that crane.”
“Come on, Powers. I know you can do it.”
“Don’t they have a crane operator? On the ship?”
“No. That’s the problem. The ship thought we’d have one here.”
“Geez, man. I don’t know. What kind of loads are we talkin’ about?”
“Armored Personnel Carriers, APCs, in the two holes closest to the superstructure; jeeps and small trailer units in the holes fore and aft.”
“I don’t know, man. I ain’t ever run a crane before.”
“Come on, Powers, I know you can do it. And if you do, we can make Hatch Team of the Month.”
“Aw, man. I don’t know.”
I was really reluctant to take on the job. Dinging a few jeeps lifting them out of a hole with a winch was one thing. But you could do some real damage, not only to the cargo, but to the ship itself, if you screwed up running a crane. The other team members had been listening to our conversation, and some of them put in their two-cents worth.
“Come on, Powers. You can do it, man.”
“Yea. Hatch Team of the Month! Geez, man! We’d get a day off!”
“We’re on nights, dummy. You don’t get a day off for bein’ Hatch Team of the Month on nights.”
“Fuck that shit! I just wanna be H.T.O.M., period! That means you’re the best! Don’t you wanna be the best?”
I was shocked to hear that last comment. These guys were beginning to come together as a team; to care about their performance; to want to be the best. I couldn’t say no to that.
“Tell you what. I’ll do it, but under one condition.”
“I take it that all the other teams want to work this ship, too. But that they nixed the idea when they found out there wasn’t a crane operator. Right?”
“If we work this sucker tonight, they’re gonna know it; they’re gonna figure out that one of us has volunteered to work the crane, and they’re gonna wanna do the same thing and work it tomorrow. I’ll do it, but the boson’s gonna have to promise us that we get to keep this ship the entire time it’s in port. Otherwise, the team with the most tons can take it away from us tomorrow night.”
“Let me go ask him. Now what do I say? I volunteer us to work it tonight, but only if we get to keep workin’ it while it’s here, right?”
Browder went back to Alpha Shack to talk with the boson. While he was gone, the guys got real excited about the opportunity. A minute or two later, Browder came running out the door with a great big smile on his face.
“We got it!”
The crew went ballistic!
“OK, guys. I’ll work the crane. But you can’t rush me. I’m gonna need some time to learn how to operate the thing. OK?”
“No problem, man. Take all the time you need!”
As hatch team Charlie moved out toward pier one, one of the guys started singing a familiar song. In no time at all everyone else started singing along, too. Even me.
“We’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz ...”
As we all joined in singing the song, and walking toward the ship, some of the guys locked arms and started doing the little skip step that the actors had done in the movie. We looked like a bunch of fairies! Some of the other hatch teams began to stare at us. But nobody on Charlie gave a damn. Working this ship was gonna put us in the running for H.T.O.M., and that’s all that mattered. That’s all the guys cared about; screw what the other teams thought!
The control room for the crane was about 25 feet off the deck. You had to climb a ladder to get there, and you had to be really careful climbing into the operator’s booth. One false move and you’d fall!
It took me almost two hours to figure out how to operate the sucker. There were a ton of instructions printed in big letters and posted all over the wall of the operator’s booth. There were a bunch of ‘don’ts’, too. I don’t remember what they were now, but before I ever even turned the thing on I had all of them committed to memory.
I quickly determined, after reading over all the instructions, that the lower the crane arm was, the less weight the crane could lift. After reading that, I knew why they’d loaded the holes the way they had. The heavy loads were in the two closest holes and the lighter loads were in the two holes that were farther away.
By 9 o’clock I was ready to give it a try. The ship’s crew had released the locking mechanism that secured the crane arm to the pedestal. I turned the key that started the system and listened intently as it made this high-pitched, whining sound. I played with the throttles for a bit and figured out which one controlled the elevation of the arm. I engaged it gently and the arm began to lift skyward. I stopped the arm and then engaged the train throttle. I watched in awe as the big arm slowly swung to the left. I moved the throttle to the right and marveled, again, as the big arm slowly swung to the right. I brought it back to its original position and then hit the elevation lever again. Slowly, the big arm began to rise.
Browder had asked me to start on the heavy stuff first. I agreed. The reason I agreed was that I could see down into the two closest holes from my position 25 feet in the air. I wouldn’t be able to see down into the two holes farther away. I’d feel more comfortable working them later, after I’d gotten used to the controls. Even though the closest loads were heavier, at least I could see what I was doing, and I wouldn’t have to concern myself with that crane elevation problem right off the bat.
As it turned out, working the crane was no problem at all. By lunch time, we’d unloaded all the APCs on the first level of the first hole we worked. By the end of the day, we’d unloaded all the levels on that hole, and were halfway through with the first level on the second hole full of APCs. When we boarded the cattle car at the end of the shift, I was concerned that the day shift guys would finish the whole ship before we could work it again. But my fears were unfounded. As it turned out, all but one of the day crew teams were afraid of the ship; afraid of the crane. Foxtrot was going to work it, but Yogi did the math and calculated that he could get ten more tons for the day working another rolling stock hole on another ship. So, when we got back to work the next night, the ship was just like we’d left it; and by 3 o’clock in the morning on day two, we’d cleaned out every hole.
After the ship had been emptied, it took the ship’s crew about two hours to make preparations for getting underway. When the crew was ready, we cast off their lines and watched as the Harbor Master and the tugs guided that big, ugly, strange-lookin’ sucker out seaside.
About an hour later, sometime around 6 o’clock in the morning, the Harbor Master brought in a big Lykes. We stood by and tied her up when the tugs guided her into the slot vacated by the Crane ship.
The big Lykes was loaded down with 60-ton Patton tanks. When we found out what the load was we literally went bananas. Because we’d worked the Crane ship, and gotten all those tons, we’d have our choice of duty the following night. Naturally, we wanted the Lykes, and if we got it, we’d have a lock on Hatch Team of the Month.
After we tied up the Lykes, we were through for the night. I went straight to the front gate to wait on the cattle cars. When Yogi and the others got off, I told them about the Lykes. I didn’t know if the boson had the manifest or not. If he didn’t have it, he wouldn’t know what the cargo was. I wanted to be sure that Yogi knew it was a ‘motherload’.
“Hey, guys. The new Lykes that just came; it’s a motherload.”
Yogi responded, and patted me on the back when he did.
“Did it just tie up?”
“Yea. I don’t think the boson’s got the manifest yet.”
“Thanks, Wiley. I wouldn’t have picked it. There’s still some rolling stock left on that filthy sucker on pier two.”
“No problem. See you guys later.”
“Yea. Now don’t get drunk tonight.”
The whole crew started laughing. I did, too.
The following afternoon, just as I was leaving the barrack and heading over to the chow hall for supper, another pier sailor walked up to me and shared some startling news.
“Hey, man. Did you hear?”
“Somebody got killed at the piers today.”
“God-damn Y.D. operator dropped a 60-ton Patton on a guy! A tread got him; got him square-and-center! A grease spot, man! That’s all that was left! A big, fuckin’, giant-ass grease spot!”
His words hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt as though I’d been hit in the chest with a sledgehammer. I couldn’t breathe; my face began to flush; my knees got weak and I had to sit on the stoop to keep from falling. Two thoughts went through my mind at the same time.
Thought number one: Who was it? Which one of my friends was dead?
Thought number two: If I hadn’t told Yogi about the tanks, he wouldn’t have picked the Lykes!
The pier sailor sat down next to me.
“What’s the matter, man? You don’t look too good.”
“Who? Do you know who it was?”
“You mean name?”
“What team? What team was he on?”
All I know is it was some Korean, a civilian on one of the Korean hatch teams.”
I let out an audible sigh of relief. Finally, I could breathe again. My mind immediately went back to my first day on Foxtrot. The civilian that ran the Korean team had talked the boson into letting them have a motherload back then. Yogi had been mad as hell, but there was nothing he could do about it. Luckily, it seemed that the same thing had probably happened again.
It was a relief to know that it wasn’t anybody I knew, but it was still a shock.
What a way to go! I tried to imagine what dying that way would be like. Surely he didn’t suffer. I mean, one moment he was there, then the next moment he wasn’t. Was it all that simple? Suddenly, I didn’t want to think about it anymore. I just wanted to keep to my routine; to get my mind off the accident.
I walked on over to the chow hall, but I wasn’t hungry. I grabbed a tray and walked down the serving line. When I got to the end, all I had on my tray was a napkin, some silverware and two empty glasses. I stood there for a moment staring at the stuff, then I went back to the head of the line and put it all back.
I went back to the side-street by the barracks to wait on the cattle cars. A short time later they pulled up. Everyone on our shift had heard about the accident and the ride to the piers was a quiet one; nobody said a word.
When we got off the cars at the piers, the day shift guys were just standing there; dazed; in shock. I ran to where the guys on Foxtrot were standing and hugged the first one I came to. It was Bullwinkle.
“Damn, man! I’m glad you’re OK!”
“Thanks, Wiley. Bummer, huh?”
“Yea. I was so afraid you guys were workin’ the thing. First thing I heard was that a tank got dropped on somebody! I thought it was one of you!”
“Friggin’ Koreans bumped us again.”
“No, man! None of us woulda’ been dumb enough to stand under that load! If we’d been workin’ the hole, nobody woulda’ got waxed!”
Bullwinkle had a point. A damn good point! Yogi spoke next.
“Don’t worry about it, Wiley. Even if it had been one of us, I’d have still wanted to work that hole. OK?”
A strange series of events had occurred in the days leading up to the accident. And all of those events concerned the Yard Crane.
It seems that just a day or two earlier, While the Y.D. was off-loading a ship seaside, the operator that worked night shift had broken his leg in a fall from the ladder leading up to the control station. The operator who worked the day shift had been working double duty since then, and he’d only had four hours of sleep in the last 24. That lack of sleep had probably been a contributing factor in the accident.
When we got the word about the operator problem during muster, I figured that nobody would be working the Lykes that night; without an operator, the Y.D. would be idle, and without the Y.D., no team could work the tanks. But when I saw the look on Browder’s face when he came out of Alpha Shack, I knew something was up. He walked straight toward me as soon as he came out the door; his eyes were fixed on mine; he’d done the same thing just two days before when he’d asked me to run the crane.
“Powers. I need to talk to you.”
“No! No fuckin’ way! I ain’t runnin’ the Y.D.!”
“You’ve got to!”
“You can do it, man! I know you can!”
“No! I can’t!”
“You’ve got to! I told the boson you could!”
“I told the boson I thought you could do it; and he said he thought you could, too!”
“Bullshit, man! Ain’t no fuckin’ way!”
“Come on, people. Let’s go. You, too, Powers. We’ve got a motherload to work.”
The rest of the team headed off toward the Lykes. I just stood there for a moment; stunned; right in front of Alpha Shack. I thought about going in to see the boson, but after I thought about it for a minute, I decided not to. I knew I’d say something I’d be sorry for later if I did. I just stood there for a long, long time. When I finally started walking toward the ship, I took my hard hat off and threw it on the pier. I started cussing, out loud, making a scene. One of the guys on Delta picked up my hard hat and brought it to me. He didn’t even have to be told, he knew what was going on, he knew why I was angry, he knew what I was going to have to do.
“Hey, man. Just take it slow and easy. Everything’ll be OK. OK?”
My response was short and sweet, and the words surprised me when they came out.
“Fuck it! It don’t mean nothin’!”
The words surprised me; but I meant it; I meant what I said! I meant every mother-lovin’ word of it! Nothing seemed to mean anything anymore! People getting killed didn’t mean anything! The boson and Browder were ready to throw me on the fire and let me get up in that Y.D. control station and drop a damn tank on one of our people! Fuck ‘em! Fuck ‘em all! If they didn’t give a damn, why should I?
As I walked down the pier toward the gangway, I saw the tank. It was sitting on the pier in the landing area right where the Y.D. operator had dropped it once he’d lifted it off the dead man. There were ten or twelve people gathered next to the center of the left tread. They were looking down, looking at the tread. I walked over to see what they were staring at. It was a gruesome sight. There was skin, hair, muscle, sinew, cartilage, pieces of intestine, feces, brain matter, bone chips ... and there were big globs of yellow goo ... I had no idea what that was ... and it was all imbedded in the tread material. It was an ugly sight; an ugly, smelly sight!
I didn’t stare at the tread for long. I turned and started to walk up the gangway. I stopped. My nostrils had picked up the unmistakable smell of vomit. I looked down at the pier. There were three or four places where men had emptied their guts. I looked over at the wooden platform on the gangway. Somebody had thrown up on it, too.
I made my way up the gangway, jumping over the big vomit splatter in the center, and stopped as I boarded the ship. There was another pile of vomit there, on the quarterdeck of the ship. There was a big fire hose, too - not under pressure - and it ran along the deck back toward the hole where the accident had happened. I followed the hose to the hole.
There were thirty or forty people standing next to the hatch looking over into the hole. Some of them were members of the ship’s crew; one in particular had on nothing but his skivvies and was drinking a cup of coffee. Some were officers from Navsuppact, DaNang; they’d come over to write up a report, I guess. Nine of the people looking over into the hole had gaunt, pale, shocked looks on their faces. They were members of hatch team Charlie.
I walked over to the hatch opening and looked down. I wasn’t ready for what I saw. There wasn’t a body; most of the remains had already been removed. But there was a residue of the body in a 4’ x 8’ spot on the deck. Most of the residue was liquid, and the color of the liquid ranged from a dark red to a light pink. Intermingled with the red and pink were yellows, browns, purples and tans. There were some tattered bits of clothing, too; and some bone fragments and hair.
Suddenly, my eyes focused on the marks on the deck. Those marks seemed to transverse the liquid residue in a fore-and-aft direction. I immediately wanted to know what those marks were, so I asked the guy standing next to me.
“What are those marks? Those fore-and-aft marks?”
I was standing next to the guy in his skivvies. He casually took a sip of coffee before he answered me.
“Beg your pardon?”
“They’re shovel marks.”
“Yea. That’s how they put it in the body bag. They just scooped it up with a shovel.”
“The goo. That’s all it was, just goo. There wasn’t a body.”
I felt a sudden gush of acid racing up my throat. I had to fight the impulse to regurgitate. I gagged four or five times, but then managed to regain my composure. No doubt about it. If I’d had breakfast that morning it would have been all over the deck at that moment
I walked away from the hole and stood next to the side rail on the ship. Browder saw me and walked over to where I was standing.
“We can’t do anything until a monk comes and says a prayer over the spot where it happened. Best I can tell, the Koreans think his spirit is still there, down there in the spot. His spirit won’t be released, to go to the here-after, until a monk says that prayer.”
“What happens then?”
“Somebody’ll hose that mess down and we can get to work, I guess.”
“Wanna lay any bets on who’s job it’ll be to hose it down?”
“I didn’t think so. Well, don’t make Giles do it. He’s already a brick shy of a full load. That might push him over the edge.”
“What about Boozer?”
“He should do OK.”
“Boozer it is, then.”
“I’ll go on over and start tryin’ to figure out how the fucker works.”
“Just let us know when you’re ready.”
“Don’t worry. It’s gonna be a while.”
As I started to walk toward the opposite side of the ship, I realized that nobody on the team had ever worked a motherload before. I turned and caught Browder as he started walking back toward the hatch.
“Hey, wait. We may need some help.”
“What kind of help?”
“We worked a lot of tanks on Foxtrot, but I always worked the pier. I have no earthly idea how they maneuvered those suckers back in the back into position under the hook.”
“What do we need to do?”
“Go tell the boson. Tell him we need to borrow somebody from another team who knows how to do that.”
“And tell whoever it is that’s gonna be drivin’ those tanks away to go ahead and move that sucker on the pier.”
“When the monk gets here, if he sees the goo on that tread he’ll probably wanna do two ceremonies.”
I crossed over the main deck to the opposite side of the ship. The Lykes was tied up outboard on pier one. The Y.D. had tied up to the Lykes on her outboard side. To get down to the main deck of the Y.D. barge, I had to climb down a rope ladder. I hate ladders. But I especially hate rope ladders.
Once on the barge, I walked directly toward the steel ladder that led to the Y.D. control booth. I stared up at the booth as I crossed the deck. I tried to calculate the height. My heart started racing. It had to be at least a 30-foot climb; maybe even more.
Just as I reached the ladder, a senior petty officer appeared out of nowhere. He was ship’s company on the Y.D., and he asked me a surprising question.
“You the new crane operator?
“You are licensed, aren’t you? I can’t let you go up if you’re not.”
I wanted to answer the man truthfully. I wanted to tell him ‘no, I’m not!’ But I knew if I did that it would get the boson in trouble.
“I’ve operated a crane before if that’s what you mean.”
“A Y.D.? A Yard Crane?”
“Now would the Navy send me over here to operate this sucker if I wasn’t qualified?”
I pondered the irony of what I’d said as soon as I said it. The answer was YES! The Navy HAD ordered me to operate a crane that I wasn’t qualified to work!
“No. I don’t guess so.”
I made my way to the ladder and started to climb.
“Wait. Every operator I’ve ever met was either an E-5 or an E-6. You’re only an E-4.”
I couldn’t resist the temptation. I walked back over to where the guy was standing and leaned in real close. My mouth was just inches away from his ear when I spoke.
“You wanna know a secret?”
“I’m not really an E-4. I’m just an E-3.”
He pulled away quickly and stared me straight in the eyes.
“You’re kiddin’, right?”
I didn’t answer him
I immediately began to wonder what this guy’s job was. I don’t know why I wanted to know, I just did. So I asked him.
“What’s your job?”
“I take care of maintenance.”
“No. That’s not what I mean. What do you do?”
“What will you be doing tonight; while I’m up there runnin’ the crane?”
“It’s night time. I’m off at night.”
“What did you do today?”
“There wasn’t nothin’ to do today.”
“You didn’t do anything?”
“I’ll find something to do tomorrow.”
“I’m sure you will.”
“Hey. If you’re a Y.D. operator, why haven’t you been assigned to us? These guys have been humpin’ their asses off. Before the other guy got hurt, they could have used a man to split the shifts, give each one a day off every now and then. They coulda’ used some days off, you know.”
“I could, too. But some of us don’t have that problem, do we?”
He gave me a very ugly look and then turned and walked away. I went to the ladder and climbed - very, very slowly - up to the control booth. All during the climb I was smiling. A dumb, stupid thought had entered my head and I couldn’t stop smiling. That thought: ‘Powers. You are one, sarcastic, smart-alec son-of-a-bitch!’
I wanted to think that my sarcastic attitude was just a defensive mechanism that my mind had conjured up to deal with the horrible sights I’d just witnessed. But maybe not. I’ve always had a slight sarcastic bent. In civilian life, I’d done a fairly good job of hiding it; of keeping it constrained. But Vietnam had often found a way to bring it to the fore. The conversation with the man down below had certainly been one of those occasions.
When I got to the top of the ladder, it took me a minute to figure out how to open the door to the control room. Once I figured that out, and got the door open, it took another minute or two to figure out how to climb in without falling.
Once I got inside, and took a good look at the levers, knobs, control buttons and gauges, I almost turned around and climbed back down. There were knobs and levers and gauges out-the-ass! They were everywhere! I had no earthly idea what any of them were, meant or did! The control station, just in front of - and to the left and right of - the operator’s chair, looked like the cockpit of a Boeing 727. The sarcastic bent left me. I only had one thought on my mind at that point.
‘Jesus! It’s gonna be a long night!’
In retrospect, it was a blessing that we couldn’t start working the hole until the monk came and said the prayer. He didn’t get there until 11 o’clock, and by then I’d made sense of some of the knobs and gauges. I’d managed to find the operator’s manual, too. It didn’t tell me everything I wanted to know, but I finally figured that I knew enough to lift, swing and drop a load to the pier.
The monk was just finishing up his prayer service when the team broke for chow. Browder came over to the side-rail on the outboard side of the Lykes and yelled up to get my attention.
“Powers! We’re breakin’ for chow! Come on down!”
“Save me a place on the pier!”
“You got it!”
It took me forever to get to the chow truck. I had to crawl out of the control station, climb down the Y.D. ladder, and then climb up the rope ladder onto the Lykes. I was exhausted at that point. I’d wanted to run to the chow truck; I was starving; I’d gotten my appetite back, but I was too tired to even think about doin’ that. The others were already seated and halfway through their meals by the time I got to the serving line.
Browder had saved me a place on a footer and I sat down next to him. There was a new face in the group.
“Powers. This is Hennesey. Hennesey, this is Powers.”
“How you doin’, Hennesey?”
“Fine. Glad to meet you, sir.”
“I ain’t no sir, Hennesey. I’m a gunnersmate 3rd.”
“I know. I’m from Georgia and it’s just my raisin’, I reckon. I call everybody older’n me ‘sir’.”
“How do you know I’m older than you?”
“It don’t make no nevermind if ya’ is or ya’ ain’t. You look older’n me, and that’s all that matters.”
Everybody started laughing. Hennesey was a likable sort. He had this really heavy southern accent and it was a hoot just to hear him talk. Browder very quickly pointed out the obvious.
“Hey, Powers. Ain’t you from Georgia, too?”
Hennesey got really excited.
“No shit! Where?”
“Columbus. Where you from?”
“Lithia Sprangs. It’s just outside Utlanna. You know where Six Flags is?”
“Yea. Been there a buncha’ times.”
“Well, Lithia Sprangs is over in that there neck of the woods.”
Browder completed the introductions.
“Hennesey here is on hatch team Hotel. He’s worked tanks before, and he knows what to do to get ‘em centered in the hole.”
“How do you do that, Hennesey? What’s the secret?”
“Ain’t nothin’ to it really. You just get somebody ta’ climb down in the tank and put the gear in neutral. Outside, ya’ just hook up two lines to the Y.D. hook runnin’ from the two lift points on the tank - the two, front or back, that are closest to the center of the hatch - and while the Y.D. man takes up the slack, the guy inside just drives the tank inta’ position.”
“And you know how to put a tank in neutral?”
“And you know how to drive it into position?”
“‘Bout as good as you know how ta’ work that crane, I reckon’.”
Everybody started laughing. I was laughing, too. But I didn’t know what to make of his remark. I was desperate to know what he’d meant, and when I finally got my composure back, I asked him.
“I hope you’re kiddin’.”
Hennesey grinned. Then he broke into a big smile.
“Yessir. I guess I am.”
The rest of the team made small talk with Hennesey, getting to know him better, while Browder and I talked as I finished up my meal. I’d noticed that Boozer and Crawford were missing and I asked where they were.
“I let them break for chow early. They’re hosing down the hole. They oughta’ be through by the time we get there.”
It didn’t take me long to eat; I’d never gone back to using utensils and I scarfed the meal down rather quickly.
The walk back to the Lykes was a long one. All I could think about were the operating instructions. There were so many ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’. There were a ton of scenarios listed in the manual that said: ‘if this happens, don’t do this!”, or ‘if this happens, be sure to do this!’ I was pretty sure that I could start the thing up; that I could get it to train; that I could get the elevation arm to work; but I was worried about elevation angle. I hadn’t seen anything in the manual about that, but if it was a problem on a small crane - like the one I’d worked just a few days before - it had to be a problem on a big sucker like this one. I worried about that most of all. Whatever I did, I was going to make sure that I kept that arm as high as possible. I kept repeating to myself: ‘the lower the arm, the less weight it can sustain!’ As I walked up the gangway, I kept repeating that thought in my mind. I kept repeating it as I climbed down the rope ladder, and I kept repeating it as I climbed up the ladder to the control station on the Y.D.
When I took my seat in the operator’s chair, I put my hand on the key and said a little prayer. Then, I said to myself - one more time:
‘Guess what, Powers? The lower the arm, the less weight it can sustain!’
Then I turned the key and the crane came to life.
I felt my way through the controls just like I’d done on the small crane; the elevation first; then the train mechanism. It kind of hopped and sputtered a time or two. It was like trying to learn how to work a straight shift on a car.
Just as I was ready to go for it - after I’d lowered the arm and was swinging the hook around and over the hole - I looked down and saw the guy who’d asked me if I had a Y.D. license. He was looking up at me, and he had a strange look on his face. I knew exactly what he was thinking. He was thinking: ‘you don’t know how to work the thing, do you?’ I leaned over in the operator’s chair, pressed my face against the window, and when I knew he could see me, I shot him a bird! He got an incredulous look on his face and then turned and stormed off.
I slowly lowered the hook. Browder was down in the hole; he was my signal man. We’d gone over the hand signals we’d use on the walk back to the ship. He gave me a clenched fist when the hook was in position and then two of the guys on the team placed two of the lifting ropes - large wire ropes as big as a man’s forearm - onto the hook. The other end of the two ropes had already been connected to the front two lift points on the tank. When Browder gave me a thumbs up, I slowly lifted the hook. Browder saw that we needed more elevation - to keep the ropes from hitting the underside of the hatch as the slack came taught - and he gave me the sign for that. Hennesey was inside the tank, and as the ropes went taught, the tank slowly began to move forward toward the center of the hole. Once the tank was centered in the hole, Hennesey hit the brake. As soon as he hit the brake he yelled ‘STOP’ to one of the other hatch team members who was standing on top of the tank by the open tank portal. That team member then yelled ‘STOP’ to Browder who immediately signaled me to go slack.
I lowered the hook until Browder signaled me to stop. The guys working the ropes then attached the second set of wire ropes to the hook and the tank. We were now ready to lift.
Before Browder gave me a lift signal, he gave a signal for all the men in the hole to move toward the aft bulkhead, out of harm’s way. Then he turned his eyes toward me again. Some of the signals he gave to the men were similar to, or the same as, the signals he gave to me. The rule for executing signals was: ‘you don’t follow a signal command unless the man giving you the signal is looking in your direction.’ I knew, when Browder was looking in the direction of the other men, that he wasn’t signaling me. He was looking in my direction now, so the next signal he gave would be mine.
He gave me the ‘thumbs up’ sign. I slowly raised the hook and watched in awe as the line went slack. As it became taught, I expected to see the tank rise up off the deck immediately. But it didn’t. It was rising, but as it rose, the ship was rising with it. That damn tank weighed 60-plus tons. That was a lot of displacement. The treads didn’t actually leave the deck until the tank had moved some 12 to 18 inches upward.
Once the treads cleared the deck, I made sure I could see Browder at all times. The last thing I wanted to do was drop a tank on HIM. But I also needed to see him so he could signal me if I was getting to close to the hatch on the far side. He walked out of my line of sight once, and I hit the braking mechanism. When I did, the line locked up and there was a tremendous jolt. The tank - all 60-plus tons of it - just shook and shuttered in mid-air. The Y.D. shook and shuttered, too.
Eventually, I got the tank clear of the hatch and then swung it out over the landing area on the pier. Boozer was my signal man on the pier. I followed his instructions and in no time at all we had the first tank unloaded.
A tremendous round of applause broke out; not just from the guys on the team, but from the Lykes ship’s company, too.
The boson always provided drivers to drive tanks from the pier to the staging area. I don’t know who those guys were, or where they came from, but there was one standing by waiting for our first lift. Before Boozer and his crew could get the ropes unhooked, that sucker had started the tank and was ready to roll.
The second lift went even smoother than the first. I was still moving slowly, cautiously, but I was gaining confidence on the controls.
The third lift was a piece of cake. I had the routine down by then, I knew what to do, what the controls did; I was really confident at that point. I was so confident that I actually began to take some parts of the operation for granted. I began to be aware of other things as I was accomplishing lift three, and one of the things I noticed were the markings on the tank.
I don’t even remember seeing the markings on the tank that had been on the pier when we reported for work that evening. My mind was certainly on other things at that point, like the pieces of human body stuck to its left tread. I don’t remember seeing the markings on the other two tanks we’d lifted, either. But when I saw the markings on the third one, I was stunned!
The tank had already cleared the hatch and I’d already swung it out over the pier. It was just hanging there, waiting for me to lower it. That’s when I noticed the markings. I went ballistic! As soon as I saw those markings I went absolutely, bug-fuck ballistic! I engaged the mechanism to lower the load violently! The tank came down fast! It hit the decking timbers on the pier so hard that it fractured them! I let the hook go slack and fumed while Boozer and his crew unhooked the load. I got out of the operator’s chair and opened the door to the booth. Then I yelled down at Boozer.
“Keep that god-damn tank where it is! Don’t let that driver move it! You hear me?”
“Yea! What’s wrong?”
“Fuck it! Just keep that tank where it is!”
“It don’t mean nothin’!”
“That bad, huh? Don’t worry, it ain’t goin’ nowhere!”
I went back to the controls and lifted the hook. I swung it around and placed it in position over the hole. Then, I engaged all the locking mechanisms and shut the sucker down. I climbed out of the control booth and down the ladder as quickly as I could. I ran to the rope ladder on the Lykes and climbed that sucker as fast as I could. When I got topside on the Lykes, I ran across the deck toward the gangway. Browder met me there and tried to stop me.
“What-the-hell’s goin’ on?”
“You don’t wanna know!”
“Yea, I do!”
“A guy got killed today for nothin’!”
“That Korean got killed today for nothin’! Go down there and stand by that tank, I’m goin’ to get the boson. I don’t wanna explain this shit but once, so listen close when I tell him!”
“You heard me, now get outta’ the way!”
I pushed my way passed Browder and stormed down the gangway. When I hit the pier I was running. I ran all the way to Alpha Shack, and I wasn’t even winded when I got there. I opened the front door and pushed it so hard that it almost came off its hinges. The boson was sitting at the desk in the front office.
“Do you have the manifest on that Lykes close by?”
“Got it right here in front of me. What’s the problem?”
“You mind if I take a look at it?”
“No. Go ahead.”
He handed me the manifest. I looked at it for a moment. When I saw what I expected to see, I handed it back to him.
“Anything on that manifest look funny to you?”
“Would you mind coming with me, sir. And would you please bring that manifest with you.”
“What’s goin’ on?”
“If you really wanna know, follow me.”
I stormed out of the office and ran back to pier one as fast as I could. By the time the boson got there, I had climbed up on the tank and taken a knee right next to the turret.
When the boson got there, he stopped and put his hands on his hips.
“This better be good, Powers. I got a shit-load of paperwork to do.”
I pointed to the letters - the markings - on the side of the turret.
“Browder. Do you know what these letters mean?”
“OK. Whadda’ they mean?”
Before he could answer, the boson had finally realized what I already knew. He pulled the manifest out of his back pocket and started staring at it intently. While he was looking at the place on the form that indicated who the final recipient of the cargo would be, Browder answered my question.
“U.S.M.C. United States Marine Corps. Right?”
The boson finally saw what I’d seen earlier - back at Alpha Shack - and he exploded!
“Jesus H. mother-fuckin’ Christ!”
The boson stormed off in a rage toward Alpha Shack. Browder seemed confused.
“What’s goin’ on, man? What-the-hell’s goin’ on?”
“These tanks were shipped to the Third Marine Expeditionary Force. Now what’s wrong with that?”
“Oh, shit! They ain’t here, are they?”
“No. Those motherfuckers left back in November!”
“Maybe it’s for some other marine unit.”
“It’s for the Third Marine Expeditionary Force. I don’t know where they are; Guam; Okinawa; back in the states, but they damn sure ain’t here!”
I jumped down off the tank and started walkin’ toward the main gate.
“Hey, man. Where you goin’?”
“I’m goin’ back to Tien Sha!”
“We’ve got four hours left, you can’t do that!”
I didn’t answer him. I took off my hard hat and threw it as far as I could down the pier. Then I turned and ran toward the gate. When I got to the main highway, I turned right.
It was an eight mile run back to the barracks. The whole way back I pretended that I was still in training at Coronado - in the UDT/SEAL program - running the Silver Strand. The memory of that time, that place, that hardship came into sharp focus. I suppose it was an attempt to get my mind off the events that had occurred in the last 24 hours. BUDS had been a rough time, a physically tortuous time, but in spite of the hardship and the rigors of the training, it had been a happier time; certainly much happier than the last 3 1/2 months in Nam. As I ran, I broke into some of the cadences we used to sing as we ran the Strand. I’d sing one line out loud, then answer it mentally:
‘I don’t know but I been told’
‘I don’t know but I been told’
‘UDTs wear wings of gold’
‘UDTs wear wings of gold’
‘I’m as proud as I can be’
‘I’m as proud as I can be’
‘To be Navy UDT’
‘To be Navy UDT’
I let an eight-count go by, then I paid homage to Olivera.
‘Hoo-ya, Olivera, hoo-ya!’
‘Hoo-ya, Olivera, hoo-ya!’
‘B.O., B.O., what you see’
‘B.O., B.O., what you see’
‘Tadpole Navy UDT’
‘Tadpole Navy UDT’
‘Run us right into the ground’
‘Run us right into the ground’
‘Swim us till we nearly drown’
‘Swim us till we nearly drown’
‘Hoo-ya, B.O., hoo-ya’
‘Hoo-ya, B.O., hoo-ya’
On and on and on I ran, singing cadences all the way. There was no moon that night, so it was incredibly dark. There was no traffic on the highway; no people, either; I had the dark night and the roadway all to myself. I remembered another UDT song and I sang it with glee.
Oh, it’s whisky, whisky, whisky
that makes you feel so frisky
on the strand ... on the strand ...
on the strand ... on the strand ...
Oh, it’s whisky, whisky, whisky
that makes you feel so frisky
on the Cor-o-na-do silver strand.
Oh, it’s cold roast duck
that makes you wanna sandwich
on the strand ... on the strand ...
on the strand ... on the strand ...
Oh, it’s cold roast duck
that makes you wanna sandwich
on the Cor-o-na-do silver strand.
I knew there was a dusk-to-dawn curfew in DaNang, but for some reason, I just didn’t think about it when I left the piers. All I wanted to do was get away from the place.
I don’t know how long it took me to get to the main gate at Tien Sha, but the guards on duty there heard me coming a long time before they saw me; I was singing those cadences as loud as I could.
As I turned off the highway to pass through the main gate, both of the guards were standing in the middle of the street - weapons at ‘port arms’.
“Halt! Who goes there?”
I didn’t stop. I just kept running ... and reciting cadences ...
“Hoo-ya, Olivera, hoo-ya!”
“Halt, damn it!”
I came to a halt right next to them in the middle of the street.
“Who-in-the-hell are you?”
I didn’t say anything.
“I said, who-in-the-hell ARE you? And what-the-hell are you doin’ off base at this time of night?”
I still didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say. Suddenly, the other guard spoke up.
“I think he must be UDT. He’s singin’ UDT songs.”
“Are you UDT?”
I still didn’t say anything, but I could tell that if they THOUGHT I was UDT they probably weren’t gonna mess with me.
“He’s UDT, man. Trust me. He’s prob’ly just out for a late-night run.”
“But there’s a curfew!”
“Fuck the curfew, man! I ain’t tellin’ no frog that he can’t go for a late night run. You gon’ tell him he can’t?”
“But he ain’t supposed to be off base this time of night!”
I took immediate advantage of their confusion. I started running again, down the main street toward the DWP barracks. As I stepped off, I smiled and gave them a half-hearted wave with my right hand and started singing again:
‘I don’t know but I been told’
‘I don’t know but I been told’
‘UDTs wear wings of gold’
‘UDTs wear wings of gold’
As I ran down the street, I heard the guards arguing with each other.
“God-damn-it! We might as well just go back to the barracks! One of the reasons we’re here is to stop people who break curfew! If we ain’t gon’ do our jobs, let’s just go back to the fuckin’ barracks!”
“Go! Got get him! If you wanna arrest his ass, go ahead! But I ain’t arrestin’ him! No sir! Fuck with a UDT frog? No sir! Not this little gray duck!”
“Damn it! Then what-the-hell are we here for? Huh? Tell me, what-the-hell are we here for?”
As I ran down the main street of Camp Tien Sha, still singing UDT cadences, I made a bee-line for the E.M. Club. I had no concept of what time it was; I had no idea that the club had closed thirty or forty minutes before; all I wanted to do was get drunk, and the place to do that was at the club.
Just as I got twenty to thirty feet from the front door of the club, I saw that the manager was closing the place up. He was standing outside the front door with his key in the lock. I was soaking wet from the sweat I’d worked up on the run. I was breathing heavy. I broke out of my double-time pace and walked over to where he was standing.
“Don’t tell me you’re closed.”
“Sorry, hoss. We’ve been closed for almost an hour now. I just finished cleaning up.”
“I’ll give you ten bucks M.P.C., and the cost for the bottle, if you’ll sell me a fifth of bourbon.”
“You know we can’t sell liquor by the bottle.”
“I won’t tell if you won’t.”
He thought for a moment; hand still on the key; key still in the lock. Then, he answered me.
“I’m low on bourbon. How ‘bout a bottle of scotch?”
“What would I mix it with?”
“Scotch and water? OK. Deal.”
He unlocked the door and we both went inside. He turned on the lights and went behind the bar. He picked out a bottle of Cutty Sark and handed it to me.
“How much I owe ya’?”
“Give me sixteen bucks and I’ll throw in a bag of ice and a 12-ounce cup.”
He went to the back and filled a clear plastic bag with ice. He grabbed a large, plastic cup off a shelf and placed the ice and the cup on the bar next to the Cutty. I handed him sixteen dollars in M.P.C. He didn’t put it in the register; he put it in his pocket, then he escorted me to the door.
“You musta’ got a ‘Dear John letter’.”
“Nope. Just a whole mess of ‘don’t mean nothin’.”
“Hey, I hear ya’! Well, have one for me.”
“You got it!”
As he locked up, I jogged back toward the barrack. When I got to my berthing area, I went to my locker and opened the door. I tried not to make any noise, the day shift guys were all asleep. I had a canteen. I’d never used it, and I couldn’t remember where I’d stored it, but when I found it, I took it out of my locker and went to the head and filled it with water. Once the canteen was full, I went back to the stoop outside the barrack and sat down. I filled the cup to half-full with scotch, dropped in a handful of ice, and then filled it to the rim with water. I stirred the mixture with my fingers and then took a sip.
‘Jesus! This is some strong-ass shit!’
It was strong, but I didn’t change the proportions; I just kept sipping. I wanted to get drunk, and there was no doubt in my mind that this mixture - half scotch and half water - would do the trick in no time.
I had no illusions about the trouble I was in. In Navy parlance, I was U.A. - an UNAU-THORIZED ABSENTEE. The Army called it A.W.O.L. - ABSENT WITHOUT LEAVE. Either way, I was in big trouble.
The way I had it figured, the boson wouldn’t bother with me tonight. He was much too busy; he wouldn’t waste personnel trying to run me down at the end of a shift. No, he’d just send someone over to get me in the morning. And when that someone came to get me, he - or they - would probably haul me off to the brig - to prison - where I’d spend a minimum of thirty days.
Ever since boot camp I’d heard horrible stories about the brig. In the late sixties and early seventies, the marines were in charge at all Navy brig facilities. From the stories I’d heard, the marines were hard on all prisoners, Navy and marine, but they were especially hard on naval personnel. I’d always been told that prisoners in the brig were beaten at least once a day; and that those beatings were especially brutal if you were a sailor. Well, screw it! At this point, I didn’t give a shit! Let ‘em beat me! I just didn’t want anything else to do with the piers!
As I sat on the stoop trying to get drunk, I started thinking about the things I’d witnessed; the things I’d seen in the four short months I’d been in-country. Right off the bat, I thought about the tanks and the death of the Korean the day before. He’d died for nothing! Then I thought about the events involving the Y.D. operators; men working beyond endurance; four hours of sleep in a twenty-four hour period. Then, I thought about the all-important ‘rush for the tons’ with nobody checking the manifest first to see who the final recipient of the cargo was. It was all bullshit! It was all fucked up! None of it meant anything! All of it; the whole experience of IT; the whole collective IT - the IT that was the Vietnam experience REALLY COULD be summed up in four short words: ‘IT DON’T MEAN NOTHIN’!’
A myriad of thoughts began to fill my brain. I’d be thinking in great detail about one thing, one thought, then boom, another thought; a thought relative in some way to the first, would just up and take over.
My first thought centered on how harsh and sarcastic my personality had become. I didn’t like the person I was now, I didn’t like the way I treated other people.
I thought about the way I’d acted on my first day on Charlie; the way I’d talked to Browder; the way I’d talked to - and treated - the short ‘newbie’. I thought about the way I’d looked upon the newbie who wanted to go see the Bob Hope show, the one who’d been waiting for the cattle car. When I’d been a newbie, I hadn’t wanted to be treated that way; I’d even promised myself that I’d never treat a newbie that way. But now ... hell ... I’d become just like the bus driver that had taken us from the airport to the transient barracks on my first day in-country. I’d almost picked a fight with that idiot! Now, I was just like him! I was acting like him! I’d become short-tempered, arrogant and mean-spirited. I got angry just thinking about it! And the more I thought about it, the angrier I got!
Instinctively, I began to try to rationalize the reasons I’d become mean-spirited. I wanted there to be a reason for my being the way I was; the way I’d become. But by the same token, I didn’t want there to be a reason. If there WAS a reason, then I could justify being that way, and I might continue to be that way. I DIDN’T WANT TO DO THAT! At least I didn’t want to do that to begin with. But by the time I’d finished the first cup of scotch, and had poured a second, I began - again - to feel a need to justify my actions; to justify my attitude; to argue the point that my behavior was normal.
I took a really big swig of scotch.
‘Damn! This stuff’s startin’ to taste GOOD!’
I was feeling a really good ‘buzz’ at this point, and I went back to work trying to justify my attitude. I started going down the list; the list of ‘horse shit’ that was the piers; the list of ‘horse shit’ that was Nam; the list of ‘horse shit’ that was the whole experience:
THE U.S.A.I.D. RICE SNAFU - Horse shit! A U.S. government agency buys the rice grown by Vietnamese rice farmers, and after paying them for it, gives them an equal amount of bagged, Louisiana-grown rice which they go back down-river and un-bag. Then, they bring that Louisiana-grown rice back to the weigh station and sell it as Vietnamese-grown rice. Again, they’re paid for that rice and given another equal portion of Louisiana-grown rice. Then they repeat the whole process over and over again. God only knows how many of those farmers were V.C. And God only knows how many weapons they were able to buy to use against our servicemen during the ‘68 Tet Offensive three or four months later. Horse shit!
TET ‘68 AND KHE SANH - Horse shit! Pure horse shit! Those poor marines laying it all on the line for weeks - for months - and then, when it was over, when they’d won the battle and sent the N.V.A. and the V.C. scurrying off into the jungle licking their wounds, Westmoreland declares the base to be of no strategic importance and the marines pull out! When the marines pull out, the N.V.A. move in and take over the place! Horse shit!
THE INCIDENT AT THE FENCE - Horse shit! Double-dog horse shit! Nobody at Deep Water Piers had ever had any instruction on what to do in case we came under enemy attack. The night the V.C. blew up the fuel bladder and the refrigeration facility at Covered Storage, it was a wonder that nobody had been killed when all those guys converged on the fence armed. I tried to think of something - anything - that was more dangerous than a typical ‘support’ sailor with a loaded weapon. I couldn’t think of anything! The only time most of those guys had ever even handled an M-16 was when they got to fire one or two clips at weapons orientation during SERE training. The dumb bastard who’d been ready to shoot at me when I sneezed didn’t even know his weapon was on ‘safety’! Horse shit!
THE CARGO NET FULL OF BUTTER - Horse shit! The night after Covered Storage got hit, there we were backloading boxes of butter - most of which had already melted out! More than half the boxes we backloaded that night had melted out; there was nothing in them! And I got knocked off a ship and could have died in the process! Backloading empty butter boxes! Horse shit!
THE TANKS AND THE BEER AT THE STORAGE YARD - Horse shit! Horse shit! Horse shit! As I sat there mixing up my third scotch and water, I could hear Guns explaining about the tanks in the storage yard that were already starting to rust. Their treads had never even gotten dirty, but they’d been sitting there for so long that they’d already started to rust. And the beer! I remembered him telling me about a six or seven-month supply of beer - just sitting there in the storage yard. Every week, then and now, at least one shipload of beer came in! What did they do with all that beer? All that extra beer! Beer we didn’t need! No wonder there was so much beer available on the black market! Was that where it was going? Horse-fuckin’-shit!
LACK OF SAFETY PROCEDURES - There were no safety procedures in place at the piers. It was obvious to anyone who had eyes that we were being asked to do things - a lot of things - that could result in death and/or injury; snaking the first few pallets of beer out of a beer hole, for instance. I’d heard Yogi say, on more than one occasion, that if any civilian stevedoring crew in the states ever tried to snake a load out of a hole - with wire rope - they’d be fired on the spot! All of them! And their pier foreman, too! But not us! It was dangerous as hell! What if that wire rope snapped while the guy had his foot on the noose keeping the lasso tight? At best he’d lose a leg! At worst he’d be cut in half! But we had to do it; we had no choice! We didn’t have the right kind of equipment to work a hole like that! And nobody cared that we didn’t have the right equipment! Horse shit, horse shit, horse shit!
LICENSES - I had to have a friggin’ license to drive a forklift; a dinky-ass 2,000 pound Clark that any kindergarten kid back in the states could work! But as far as the boson was concerned, I didn’t have to have jack-shit to operate a god-damn Y.D. rated to lift loads in excess of 100 tons! A god-damn Y.D. that was so friggin’ dangerous that a man had gotten killed just the day before! Gotten killed because the operator hadn’t had enough sleep! NOW THAT WAS ANOTHER FRIGGIN’ MATTER ENTIRELY!
THE BIG THREE - In Nam, at any given time, the typical serviceman was exhausted, sleepy and hungry. There wasn’t anything else! Wait! Wrong! There was something else. The whole time you were exhausted, sleepy and hungry, you were busy doing the boring, mundane, routine activity that was your everyday job. And that boring mundane job you were doing while you were sleepy, hungry and exhausted made you vulnerable to fuckin’ up big-time and getting killed because you weren’t paying attention because you were sleepy, hungry and exhausted. Then, out of the blue, that boring, mundane, routine existence was punctuated by terrifying, horrific, maddening events. And all of that, the mundane and the horrific, were both occasionally interrupted with moments of sheer comedy!
It was a circus, that’s what it was; a fuckin’, warped, dangerous circus; and it wasn’t going to change! It didn’t matter what I thought, it wasn’t going to change! That’s just the way life was in the Nam! Everything else aside, the big thing was the exhaustion; being totally and completely exhausted; twelve hour shifts; no days off! If they’d just bring in 80 more people to work the piers, they could run three shifts; eight on and sixteen off! Eight to work, eight to sleep and eight to rest; to relax the mind, body and spirit! But no! Things wouldn’t be so dangerous then! People wouldn’t get killed then! This was the Navy! This was Nam! You couldn’t do things that made sense! You had to do just the opposite! It was horse shit! It was god-damn, mother-fuckin’, ass-kickin’ horse shit!
Suddenly, I heard a noise. I looked up and saw four sailors sneaking across the compound headed toward the perimeter fence. It was dark and they couldn’t see me. Hell, I could barely see them.
I was careful not to make any noise. I wanted to know what they were up to. If they were doing what I thought they were doing; if they were going where I thought they were going, they were some dumb sons-of-bitches.
They made their way to the fence very, very slowly. They seemed to be making a concentrated effort to be quiet. When they got to the fence, they felt their way along the wire for eight to ten feet. Suddenly, they stopped. Then one of them whispered loudly:
“Here it is!”
All at once, just seconds later, they were on the other side of the fence, on the other side of the road, running down a dirt path into shantytown.
I couldn’t help myself. I started laughing. There was no doubt about where they were headed. The guys at Tien Sha called it ‘Snatch Patrol’. I’d heard that there were shacks over in shantytown where guys could get laid. I don’t know how they knew where to go, but obviously, they did. I got up and walked over to the fence; to the place where they’d passed through. There, hanging on the top strand of barbed wire, was an empty coke can. Just under the can there was a slit in the fence. The can must have been a marker so they’d know where the slit was in the dark.
I envied them. I would have loved to have gone with them; to have followed them; to enjoy the experience they were about to enjoy. But I didn’t have the courage. The urge to follow them was certainly there, but so was a memory; a memory of the green tracer fire I’d seen coming up from shantytown on New Year’s Eve. There were Vietcong in shantytown! No, I didn’t have the courage to do that; to go there!
Suddenly, I got a wild impulse; a wild hair! The thought just popped into my mind and I couldn’t control myself. I walked over to the fence and untied the wire that held the coke can. I walked down the fence ten to fifteen paces and tied it back up on the top run of wire. I was drunk, and I couldn’t control the laughter. I got the silly giggles. I couldn’t wait for them to come back; to see their reaction when they couldn’t get back in the compound; when they couldn’t find the slit in the fence.
I walked back over to the barrack stoop and sat down. Now, where was I? What had I been thinking about before the four horny sailors showed up?
I was really zonkered now, and I couldn’t remember what I had been thinking about before. I finished up the last swallow of scotch and mixed me another - half and half. Then, I took a long, slow sip:
‘Damn! This shit ain’t half bad!’
A moment or two later, while I was still trying to think about what I’d been thinking about before, I started thinking about home. I thought about my mom. I thought about my brother and my sisters. Then, I thought about my father. I thought about the war he’d been in. He’d served with honor. He’d served with honor in an honorable war. What would he think about Nam? What would he think about THIS WAR? Then it hit me! It hit me like a bolt out of the blue!
I was going to the brig! I was going to the brig tomorrow! I’d be a prisoner! Tomorrow! I’d be a prisoner in a war zone! Tomorrow!
Then, out of nowhere, another thought hit me! Not only was I going to the brig, but I’d probably get a reduction in pay grade, too! I’d just made E-4! Would they kick me back down to E-3? No! It would probably be worse! I wasn’t an E-4 yet, so I’d probably get busted from E-3 to E-2!
I’d screwed up big-time! What would my dad think if he knew? What would he think when he eventually found out? That thought hurt more than anything else.
Thinking about going to the brig; thinking about the loss in pay grade; thinking about what my father would think when he found out - all of that - the negative aspect of all of that - put me in a quick, downward, emotional tailspin. All I wanted to do at that moment was to go to bed; to hit the rack. I stopped trying to remember what I’d been thinking about before; I forgot all about the four horny sailors. The scotch bottle was empty. I took it, the plastic cup and the plastic bag and tossed them in the shit can. Then I picked up my canteen, walked back in the barrack, put my canteen in my locker, lay down fully-clothed on my rack and crashed.
I heard the alarm clocks go off. Somebody turned on the lights. I tried to keep sleeping while the day shift guys got dressed, but I couldn’t. I could tell they were trying to go about their business quietly so they wouldn’t wake me up, but it didn’t do any good. Then, finally, thirty or forty minutes later, when they’d all left, I managed to go back to sleep.
Sometime later, around 8 o’clock or so, I heard a noise; I heard footsteps. There was somebody in the barrack. I was laying on my bunk on my right side. I couldn’t see the door. I couldn’t see who’d just come in the door. I was immediately wide awake. The noise I was hearing could only mean one thing. It was security. Whoever was making that noise had come to get me; to arrest me. This was it! I was on my way to the brig!
I didn’t move; I just lay there as the footsteps got closer and closer. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the lower half of a body. I couldn’t see the figure from the waist up, it was blocked by the bunk above me. Finally, when the figure sat down on the lower bunk opposite mine, I breathed a big sigh of relief.
“Damn, man! You just scared the hell out of me!”
It was Browder. I raised myself up and sat on the edge of my bunk.
“I’m goin’ to the brig, ain’t I?”
He didn’t answer me right away. He just sat there; staring at me.
“Answer me, damn it! I’m goin’ to the brig, right?”
“For goin’ U.A.!”
“Did you go U.A.?”
“You know damn well I did!”
Again, he paused before he answered me.
“I didn’t know you went U.A. I just figured you had some personal business to take care of.”
“How could I not be goin’ to the brig? I wasn’t there to run the Y.D.! Wha’d the boson say when he found out I was gone?”
“The boson don’t know you left.”
“He came back down about thirty minutes after you split and pulled us off the Lykes. He sent us over to that filthy bastard on pier two to work rolling stock.”
“I ain’t on report? You didn’t write me up? The boson doesn’t know?”
“God! I thought I’d done screwed the pooch!”
“It wasn’t the smartest thing you’ve ever done; leavin’ like that. But I can understand why you did. If the boson had kept us on the Lykes, you’d be screwed for sure. But he didn’t! You dodged a bullet, asshole! You definitely dodged a bullet!”
“Thanks for what?”
“For not bein’ a prick, for not writin’ me up!”
“Now would I be dumb enough to write up my assistant hatch team captain; the guy who’s gon’ get us hatch team of the month?”
“Hummm. I never thought about it that way. Hell, no! You wouldn’t write me up!”
“Go U.A. again and see, asshole! Just try it again and see!”
I stood up and embraced the big, ugly lug. Then I sat back down on my bunk. Browder had something to tell me, and he couldn’t wait to get it out.
“You know, I didn’t come over here to tell you that you weren’t in trouble, I came over to tell you about the team. They cleaned out two levels of rolling stock in three hours last night. And when they were done, they were covered head-to-foot in griping grease. They flat busted their fannies. And as a result, for all practical purposes, we’re tied with Delta for H.T.O.M.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It would have been hard for Foxtrot to unload two full levels in three hours; especially on that filthy sucker. Her winches didn’t work worth a shit; the decking in her holes wasn’t metal; it was wood; it was ‘busted-all-to-hell hatch boards’! I looked at Browder. He looked at me. He was smiling; waiting for me to say something.
“Two full holes in three hours?”
“We’re gonna do it! We’re gonna make it! We’re gonna make H.T.O.M.!”
“You don’t know how bad I wanted to hear you say that!”
“I can’t believe it!”
“Can’t believe what?”
“It’s hard to believe that they’d hump it like that after what they saw tonight. How can you motivate a group of people to bust their asses like that? How can you motivate them when they know their command is fucked up; that they’re being asked to put their lives on the line for nothin’; it’s just god-damn hard to believe!”
“It’s like that all over Nam, I’m sure. The average grunt in the field knows the war is fucked up; that the upper level of the chain of command doesn’t care whether he gets waxed or not; but he keeps goin’ out on patrol; he keeps gettin’ shot at; he keeps takin’ the same piece of jungle over and over and over again; and then pullin’ out over and over and over again. Then taking it back again over and over again. But he keeps on doin’ it!”
“I think maybe we’re just a special generation. We’re a god-damn idealistic bunch, I know that.”
“Ain’t that the truth!”
“Well, go back to bed. I just wanted you to know about the guys; how hard they worked after you left.”
“No problem. See you tonight.”
He started to walk away, then he stopped.
“Boozer’s got your hard hat. He said he’d give it back to you tonight.”
“Tell him thanks.”
He smiled and winked at me.
“No. You tell him.”
When Browder left, I lay back down. I was physically and emotionally spent. All I wanted to do was sleep. But before I dozed off, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief and thought about my father again. Thank God he would never know how close I’d come to going to the brig; how close I’d come to dishonoring the family name. My last conscious thoughts, before drifting into la-la land, were of him and my mom. Those thoughts probably led to the dream I had when I fell asleep.
Actually, it wasn’t a dream. It was one of the worst nightmares I’ve ever had in my life. And it wasn’t a nightmare about Nam! It was worse than that!
In my dream, I was home on leave; I was home on that thirty days I was going to get in April or May - halfway through my extended tour. I was sitting at the dinner table with the rest of my family. Mom had cooked up everything I liked: steak, mashed potatoes, corn, green beans, iced tea, biscuits, and of course, black-eyed peas. I LOVE black-eyed peas; especially the way my mom cooked them. I could make a whole meal out of black-eyed peas!
In my dream, I’d finished my first helping of everything. The only thing I wanted a second helping of was black-eyed peas. I wanted to just fill my plate with the suckers and eat to my hearts content. I asked my brother, Chuck, to pass me the bowl He didn’t seem to hear me, so I asked him again. He still didn’t seem to hear me, so I lost my cool; I lost my composure; I became - at home - the vile, sarcastic, smart-alec bastard that I’d become in Vietnam. Out of nowhere, I just up and yelled:
“Would somebody pass the fuckin’ black-eyed peas!”
As soon as I said it I looked at my mom. Her eyes were wide open! Her mouth was wide open, too! The shocked, hurt look on her face burned into my heart like a branding iron! Her face then began to zoom toward me, getting larger and larger and larger. She wasn’t getting any closer, her body wasn’t getting any closer; it was just her face.
When her face was finally just inches from mine; with that shocked, hurt look on it, I woke up! My hands were clammy; my heart was racing; there was a cold chill running down my spine!
All through my childhood and adolescent years I’d never been one to use foul language. Oh, I’d slip up every now and then and yell ‘damn’ or ‘shit’ in an excited moment, but I’d never been much of a cusser; not even in college.
When I’d joined the Navy - when I was in boot camp back in San Diego - I remember being shocked at the language chief Taylor had used. I wasn’t accustomed to that, and it took some getting used to.
As I sat on my bunk, heart still racing, I began to think about my language; I began to think about the propensity for the use of foul language in the military.
My fellow trainees in boot camp and I had not really used foul language that much. The only times I could remember that we cussed were when we were under extreme pressure. There was a lot of cussing when we came out of the gas chamber, I remember that. And there had been some ugly, exclamatory phrases uttered during our firefighting drills, too. It seemed that the only time we ever really cussed was when we were up against the wall; really under pressure.
The same had been true about ‘A’ School. I couldn’t remember that anybody in my class really cussed that much. We weren’t under any pressure there.
UDT/SEAL training had been something else entirely. Almost everybody cussed in BUDS. And no wonder! I couldn’t think of a more pressure-packed situation than that!
I began to wonder if there was a correlation between being under pressure and the use of foul language in the Navy. Was there something to that? Was our use of foul language directly related in some way to the amount of pressure we were under? The one thing I did know, the one thing that came instantly to mind, was that cussing had become a way of life at the piers. Nobody I presently knew - at the piers - could put a coherent sentence together without salting it down with fucks, shits, damns and motherfuckers.
I suddenly realized that my language was so bad; that my use of profanity was so second-nature, that I had better get a handle on it before I went home. If I didn’t get a handle on it, no doubt about it, the nightmare I’d just had would come true, it would really happen. I promised myself, from that moment on, that I would make a concentrated effort to stop using profanity.
The last two weeks of January were hell at the piers. The boson finally got approval for us to backload the tanks and the same Lykes that had brought them in delivered them to a marine depot back in the states. The Lykes, and the filthy sucker on pier two, were the last ships to contain rolling stock, or any measurable tonnage, during the balance of my time at the piers.
The rest of the ships we worked in January were full of ‘bullshit’ loads. There were an extraordinary number of refer ships, and an extraordinary number of beverage holes, too. At one time, as best I remember, four of the six ships we worked during one stretch contained nothing but beer and soda. The other two were refers. It was back-breaking work, and by the shift change in February everybody - on both shifts - was totally and completely exhausted.
Unfortunately, hatch team Charlie didn’t make H.T.O.M. in January. Delta beat us out by 42 tons. The team wasn’t too disappointed, though. There was no reward for being H.T.O.M. during a night shift month, so we set our sights on February.
One of the guys on hatch team Bravo was devoutly religious. He was a Southern Baptist and had grown up in a small, rural community in Virginia. He was very straight-forward and open about his beliefs, and he would preach to anyone who uttered a profanity or did anything else that one might take to be unchristian. Accordingly, he had a lot of trouble being accepted on his team, and he caught a lot of grief from members of the other teams as well.
By the end of January, the workload at the piers had debilitated all of us to such a degree that the Christian kid felt compelled to pray about our situation.
During chow one night, just a day or two before the shift change, the guys on Bravo were sitting in close proximity to us on the pier footers. We didn’t like to sit next to Bravo at chow; none of the teams did. The Christian kid wouldn’t let Bravo eat until he’d said grace, and if you were close by - close enough for him to chastise you - he wouldn’t let you eat, either.
Boozer realized that we’d taken seats next to Bravo before the rest of us did, and he started making these ‘ahem’ noises trying to get our attention; trying to prompt us - as a group - to get up and move to another location. But by the time the rest of us realized what was happening, it was too late. I didn’t realize what was happening until I heard the kid say:
“Would you all bow your heads, please ...”
As soon as the kid got the word ‘please’ out of his mouth, one of our guys reacted:
I’m sure he wasn’t trying to be ugly, he was just shocked to suddenly realize that we’d messed up and sat down next to Bravo. Most of our group started laughing. They tried not to, but the unintentional remark was funny and they couldn’t help it. I couldn’t help it, either. I laughed, too.
The kid stared us down; he humbled us, and we all bowed our heads. Then, he took us all by surprise. He did something he’d never done before. He prayed an extended prayer. After the ‘Lord, bless this food’ part, which he always said in the same, monotone voice, he made a very passionate plea; a plea for the good Lord to ease our burden at the piers:
“Lord God, please find a way to provide the much needed rest that your humble servants here so desperately need right now. I know that all things are possible in Christ, and in Christ’s name, I pray that you will provide for us - provide a respite from our labors - during this terrible period of travail that we presently find ourselves in. Thank you, God! And I pray this prayer in the precious name of Jesus. Amen.”
We were all a little shocked at what he’d said, and for the first time ever there was a response from those he was praying for. It was a loud response; a group response; everyone within earshot replied in the same way at the same time:
One of our guys got carried away and let a profanity slip out. But it was a well-intended profanity:
“Fuckin’ A, man!”
When he realized what he’d said, his eyes got big and he covered his mouth with his hand. He’d been honest in his response; his response had been heart-felt. He just didn’t mean for it to come out the way it did.
However well-intended, just minutes after it had been said, everyone had forgotten about the kid’s prayer. It had been a nice gesture; a thoughtful, honest and sincere request, but nobody really expected anything to come of it.
I don’t know when the typhoon season begins and ends in Southeast Asia, but I remember hearing something to the effect that it had ended at the end of monsoon season. The monsoon season had ended in the middle of December.
One day, just a day or two into February, a thunderous sound woke me up at around 3 o’clock in the morning. It was a sound I hadn’t heard in months. It was the sound of rain - a driving rain - beating down on the tin roof that covered the barrack.
I remember that I was surprised by the sound. We got rain every now and then, so hearing the rain wasn’t surprising, but even at the height of the monsoon season the rain had never come down that hard.
I eventually went back to sleep. When the alarm clock woke me up the next morning, the sound was still there; the rain was still coming down in torrents. I got up and got dressed, searched through my locker until I found my poncho, put it on, and then ran to the chow hall to eat breakfast.
When I got back to the barrack about 30 minutes later, there were no cattle cars. There weren’t any men waiting on the cars, either. As I started to enter my berthing area, I noticed a large group of men standing in a larger group at the far end of the stoop. Someone was talking to them. I decided to walk down and see what was going on. I got there just in time to hear the barrack master-at-arms finish the announcement he was making:
“So, just to be sure you all understand what’s going on, there’s a typhoon blowing up in the South China Sea. The night crew untied all the ships last night and they’re all headed seaside to ride this sucker out. The piers will be closed until further notice. You’re all officially off, and until further notice there will be no watches for you to stand. Any questions?”
There were none.
“All right, then. Stand down.”
As soon as we heard those words there was a sudden explosion of yelling and applause. Everybody started hugging everybody else. There were probably even a few kisses, too. I remember thinking that if someone had come by, someone who didn’t know what was happening, he might conceivably have thought that the war had ended by the way we were carrying on.
I made my way back to my berthing area and went inside. I was dead-dog tired so I took off my clothes and climbed back in the rack. I was eager for sleep to come, but before I dozed off, I thought about the Christian kid and his prayer. Were we experiencing a typhoon - a typhoon out-of-season - because the kid had asked the good Lord to grant us a relief from our travail? I thought about it long and hard for a moment - he’d only prayed the prayer just a day or two before - then I reached what I considered to be an honest and reasonable opinion:
‘Naw! No way!”
I pulled the covers up over my head and in no time flat I was sound asleep.
I can’t remember now how long the stand-down lasted. My best recollection is that it was three to four weeks. We did work some days late in February, but not many. All I remember for sure is that there was no H.T.O.M. honor awarded for the month. We’d all had so much time off, because of the typhoon, that there was no motivation on the boson’s part to grant the H.T.O.M. honor to any team.
I don’t know how many days went by - how many days in a row I slept - but it had to have been close to a week. I didn’t sleep straight through during this period, I’d sleep until something woke me up - like a noise - or the sunlight glaring through the screen door. Sometimes when I’d wake it would be dark outside; sometimes it would be light. If I was hungry when I woke up, I’d go to the chow hall. Sometimes though, if I noticed that I smelled particularly bad, I’d go get a shower first, then I’d go to the chow hall. But for at least a week, whatever I did when I woke up, I’d always end up back in my rack just 30 or 40 minutes later.
I didn’t realize just how exhausted I was until three or four days into the hibernation process. Every time I tried to get up it was harder and harder to do. My body ached; every muscle was spent; I felt just like I’d felt during those early days in the training cycle at BUDS. And every time I got up, I seemed to be sleepier. Before I could even finish my meals my eyelids would start to sag. Inevitably, as soon as I got back to my bunk, and my head hit the pillow, I’d be asleep.
The other guys were going through the same rejuvenation process. Every time I got up I noticed that four or five bunks were empty. When I’d get to the chow hall I’d see those people. I didn’t know any of their names, but I recognized their faces. Then, when I’d get back to my rack I’d notice that three or four other bunks were empty. We were all doing the same thing - sleeping and eating, sleeping and eating - but at different times.
Finally, I woke up one day and felt rested enough to do something besides eat. When I got back from the chow hall, I went to the head and got cleaned up real good. I shaved, took a long, hot shower and then came back to the barrack and put on a clean pair of utilities. The first thing that popped into my mind was to introduce myself to the guy who owned the recorder. And I would have, too, but he wasn’t there; his bunk was empty.
I went out on the stoop and sat down. I lit a cigarette. I was still tired, still sleepy, but the ‘totally exhausted’ part had passed. I needed to do something, something to get my muscles moving again. But what? I thought about going to see a movie, but the movies they ran at the Tien Sha theater were usually awful. To call them ‘B’ movies didn’t do them justice. They were more like ‘C’ or ‘D’ movies. I’d never heard of any of them, and they sucked bad. Rama included, they sucked really bad!
Suddenly, I realized that it had been quite some time since I’d talked with my folks. I ran back in the barrack and looked at my clock. It was 8 o’clock. The sun was up, so that meant it was 8 in the morning. ‘Good,” I thought. ‘By the time I get to China Beach it’ll be 9 or 9:30 in the evening back home.’
I walked up to the main gate to wait on the bus. The guy at the gate told me that I’d just missed it and that it would be a while before another one would come by. I didn’t have anything better to do so I decided to wait.
Just a moment or two later a green jeep with American military markings appeared. The driver was Vietnamese. He’d obviously had some business to attend to on base and now he was leaving. I quickly deduced that he was an officer in the Vietnamese army. When his jeep came to a stop at the check point, the two Americans on duty saluted him. He returned their salute. I remember thinking that that was odd. We didn’t have to salute officers, the rule had been suspended. So, why were they saluting him? I never figured that one out.
As the driver began to pull away, he noticed me.
“You need ride?”
“Where you goin’?”
“Yea. Me, too.”
“OK. I take you.”
I looked at the two guards, I wanted to know if it was all right to accept a ride from a Vietnamese. They realized what my inquisitive look meant, and they both nodded in the affirmative. As soon as I hopped in the passenger seat, the driver pulled out.
“My name Tran. Who you?”
“My name is Powers.”
“Powers, with an s.”
“No. Powers, with an s.”
“Hard to say essa.”
“It’s hard to say ‘s’?”
“You can say ‘yes’. Yes has an s.”
“Hard to say word end in essa.”
“Yes has an s on the end.”
His smile got even bigger.”
“OK, OK. Yes can say. Power with essa, no can say.”
“OK. Fair enough. You can call me Power.”
“Tell me something.”
“Is your first name Tran, or is that your last name? Don’t the Vietnamese put their family names first?”
“Then your family name is Tran?”
“And people call you Tran?”
“Yes. Now you say?”
“Power your first name?
“No. Powers is my last name.”
“Oh! What first name?”
“That real name?”
“No. My real name is Robert Joseph Powers, Jr.”
“Junior? You have four name? Why not call Junior?”
“No. Junior means that I have the same name as my father.”
“Ah. Real name Roba Josa Power?”
He broke into an even bigger smile.
“Bad. Why is it bad?”
He started to laugh. He looked at me when he did to be sure that I understood that he wasn’t trying to intimidate me.
“Too many syllable.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Tran Cao Ky have three syllable.”
“Is that your whole name?”
“Tran Cao Ky have three syllable, Roba Josa Power have six syllable.”
“Too many syllable!”
I didn’t understand what he was getting at, but I laughed along with him.
“OK. My name’s too long.”
I thought for a minute and realized that I’d seen his family name before; the name Tran. I’d seen it a lot.
“I’ve seen your name before; on the fronts of buildings; is your name a famous name? What does Tran mean?”
His eyes got really wide. He seemed genuinely excited that I’d asked him that question.
“Ah! Tran! Yes. Tran fama name!”
“Yes. Very, very fama.”
“You mean famous?”
“Yes. Fama. Tran fama name.”
“Really. What does it mean?”
“Tran Hung Dao!”
“What’s Tran Hung Dao?”
“Not what. Who Tran Hung Dao.”
“OK. Who’s Tran Hung Dao?”
“Tran Hung Dao great general.”
“North Vietnamese or South Vietnamese?”
“No, no! Dead! Tran Hung Dao dead!”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“No. Long-time dead! Long-time dead!”
“Oh. Sort of like George Washington. Do you know George Washington? Do you know who he was?
“Yes. I know Washington. Cherry tree! Fro money! Cross river!”
“Tran Hung Dao dead before Washington.”
“If he lived before Washington that is long-time dead. So, tell me about Tran Hung Dao.”
“Tran Hung Dao defeat great army of Chin.”
“Yes, Chin. You know Chin?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Chin. You know Chin. Chin same-same China! You know China?”
“Oh! Chin means China?”
“Yes. Chin same-same China.”
“So, Tran Hung Dao defeated the Chinese?”
“Yes. Chin people same-same Mongol people. You know Mongol?”
“Yea. The Mongols. OK, I follow you now.”
“Where you follow?”
“No. That’s just an expression. It means ‘I understand’.”
He got a quizzical look on his face.
“Why you say follow? Why no say ‘understand?”
I couldn’t help but laugh. I could tell by the look on his face that my use of a colloquialism had totally confused him.
“Never mind. OK, I understand Mongol. When did Tran Hung Dao defeat the Mongols?”
“In twelve hundred time.”
“Twelve hundred? You mean in the thirteenth century?”
“Yes. Sometime in that time.”
“Geez! That WAS a long time ago! He IS long-time dead, isn’t he?”
“Yes. Long-time dead! You know Kublai Khan?”
“Kublai Khan. Yes. I learned about Kublai Khan. Wasn’t he the son or the grandson of Ghengis Khan?”
“Same-same Khan. Grandson of the great Khan. Yes.”
“What about Kublai Khan?”
“Tran Hung Dao army defeat Kublai Khan army.”
“You want me stop?”
“You go bafroom?”
I started laughing again. Another colloquialism.
“No. I don’t need to go to the bathroom. Tell me more. Are you saying that Tran Hung Dao’s army defeated the army of Kublai Khan?”
“Yes. And if Tran Hung Dao no defeat Kublai Khan, all G.I. have slanty eye.”
I wasn’t sure if I understood what he’d said. But it was funny the way he’d said it - the inflection he had in his voice when he said it - almost as though he were boasting or bragging.
“Yes. If Tran Hung Dao no defeat Kublai Khan, then all G.I. would have slanty eye.”
“If Tran Hung Dao had not defeated Kublai Khan, then all Americans would be oriental; have oriental blood; have slanty eyes; is that what you’re saying?”
“Kublai Khan had many army; boo-coo army. Many army in west. Army in west take Romani; conquer Romani. Some Romani people have slanty eye. They call Magyar people. Some Croat people have slanty eye. Some Bosni people have slanty eye.”
“One of Kublai Khan’s western armies conquered Romania?”
“And one conquered Yugoslavia?”
“No. Same-same army conquer both. And yes, Croat people and Bosni people same-same Yugo people.”
“You mean Yugoslavia?”
“But you said many armies?”
“Yes. One army go Europa. One army go Roma. You know Roma?”
“Yes. Rome. And Europe.”
“Yes. And if boocoo Kublai Khan army no go home, Roma people have slanty eye today; Europa people have slanty eye today. If Europa people have slanty eye today, G.I. have slanty eye today. You follow?”
I laughed again. He was a quick learner.
“You mean Kublai Khan’s western armies would have conquered Rome and modern day Europe if they hadn’t had to go home? Is that what you’re saying?”
“So why did they go home?”
“Tran Hung Dao defeat eastern army of Kublai Khan. Western army must come home. Western army no come home, Tran Hung Dao take army to Chin; fight in Chin. Kublai Khan afraid of Tran Hung Dao; afraid Tran Hung Dao come to Chin.”
“Let me see if I’ve got this right. Kublai Khan had many armies. At least two were busy conquering Europe and Rome. One was busy trying to conquer Vietnam. Tran Hung Dao defeated his eastern army. When that happened, Kublai Khan had to call his western armies home to keep Tran Hung Dao from conquering all of China? Is that what you’re saying?”
“Yes. No shit!”
I laughed, too. He was definitely getting a lesson in how to talk American, and he was an excellent student. He was an excellent teacher, too. And his lesson continued.
“When Tran Hung Dao fight Kublai Khan, he fight first guerrilla war.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! I was taught, back in America, that the American colonists were the first soldiers to fight a guerrilla war.”
He turned and looked at me. His smile hadn’t completely disappeared, but it was ebbing.
“American people must all-time be first. Why American people think must all-time be first?”
I didn’t answer him. I didn’t know how to answer him, so he continued.
“Tran Hung Dao have two-hundred thousand soldier. Kublai Khan eastern army have six-hundred thousand soldier. Tran Hung Dao army lure Kublai Khan army into jungle. Many come on river; in reed boat; many reed boat. Kublai Khan have horse army; have horse on boat; have many horse on many boat. Tran Hung Dao army plant long stake in river; many long stake. Tide go out, river go down, stake sink boat; stake kill horse; stake kill many, many horse. Kublai Khan army must fight in jungle. Kublai Khan army no know how to fight in jungle. Tran Hung Dao army kill all Kublai Khan army; take no prisoner.”
I was transfixed. The story was fascinating. I wanted to know more - more about Vietnamese history - and Tran continued to teach me.
“Enough Tran Hung Dao. You know lady in lake?”
“Lady in lake?”
“Yes. You hear lady in lake?”
“I don’t think so. Lady in lake?”
“Yes. King Artur. You hear King Artur?’
“Oh! The lady in the lake! Excalibur! The Legend of King Arthur!”
“Yea, I’ve heard about the Lady in the Lake.”
“You believe real, or you believe legend?”
“I think it’s probably just a legend.”
“Vietnamee have same legend. Vietnamee legend older.”
“The Vietnamese have a King Arthur legend?”
He got a serious look on his face.
“NO! Brit have Vietnamee legend!”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say it that way.”
“Go ahead. Tell me about your King Arthur.”
“No King Artur! King Le Thai To!
“Vietnam fight Chin many, many time. Thousand year, two thousand year, Vietnam fight Chin many, many time.
“One time, Vietnam have king. King name Le Thai To. Le Thai To receive very special sword from lady in lake. Then, Le Thai To army fight Chin army for ten year. Le Thai To army defeat Chin army.
“After war, one day Le Thai To go fish on lake Luc Thuy. Lake Luc Thuy same-same lake of lady in lake. While he fish, giant turtle appear. Le Thai To draw magic sword and point at turtle. Turtle grab sword with mouth and go under water; take sword under water. King Le Thai To very sad. He order chief engineer get many, many men and make water go from lake. Engineer and many, many men make water go. No find turtle. No find magic sword. Le Thai To think lady give sword just for victory over Chin. Once have victory, lady send turtle. Turtle get sword back for lady. Le Thai To then name lake Luc Thuy lake Ho Hoan Kiem. Ho Hoan Kiem mean ‘lake of returned sword’.”
“Are you sure that the Vietnamese legend is older than the English legend?”
“Well I’ll be damned!”
At the time, I didn’t know if the stories he’d told me were true or not, but I quickly concluded that, if they were, I’d just received one heck of a history lesson. I wanted to know more about Tran Hung Dao; I wanted to know more about Le Thai To; I wanted to know more about the sword, and lake Ho Hoan Kiem. I promised myself that I’d learn more about everything he’d told me as soon as I got the chance.
Tran and I made small talk for a while. He told me about his family. He told me that he was originally from Hanoi, but that his side of the family had moved south - to Saigon - after the country was partitioned by the U.N. in 1954.
I wasn’t really paying close attention to what he was saying until he mentioned that two of his cousins were N.V.A. soldiers.
“Wait. Did you just say that you have family in the North Vietnamese Army? Two cousins?”
“Tran not know. Maybe Kampuchea.”
“But the rest of your family is on your side, right? South Vietnam’s side?”
He got a really strange look on his face. At first, he didn’t seem to know what to say; it took him the longest time to formulate an answer.
“Not think about side. Not wise to think about side.”
“Answer not simple.”
“Sure it is. You either believe in democracy or communism; what the south’s fighting for, or what the north’s fighting for. Right?”
“No, no. Answer not politic.”
“How can you say the answer’s not political? How can it be anything but?”
“South Vietnam politic corrupt.”
“The government of South Vietnam is corrupt, is that what you’re saying?”
“I can’t say that I disagree with you. But if you really feel that way, why do you fight for the south?”
He managed a slight grin. Not a smile, but a weak, embarrassed grin.
“Draft? Oh! You got drafted?”
“The only reason you’re fighting, the only reason you’re in the South Vietnamese army is you got drafted?”
“You mean ... you mean you don’t believe in what you’re fighting for?”
When I asked him that question, we were just pulling up to the main gate at China Beach. He turned and looked at me for a moment. It was a sharp, surprised, hurtful look. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, he pulled the jeep off to the side of the road and parked it. He turned to look at me again; his eyes were piercing; his expression bordered on anger.
“Why YOU come Vietnam? Why all G.I. come Vietnam? You come Vietnam because you believe war right; war just? Or you come Vietnam because Navy say you come Vietnam? You join Navy, or you get draft? You believe what you fight for, or you no know? Tran answer not simple! Maybe Power answer simple! Power answer Tran, then Tran answer Power!”
He had me. I had no earthly idea what I was fighting for. I had no earthly idea why I was in Vietnam. I hadn’t joined the Navy because I wanted to. I’d joined the Navy to keep from getting drafted. I’d volunteered to come to Vietnam, but not because I wanted to. I’d volunteered for Nam to avoid sea duty in the Navy. I’d just chastised Tran for not believing in what he was fighting for, and I didn’t know what I was fighting for! Tran was right! The answers weren’t simple; they weren’t simple for either of us!
“I’m sorry, Tran. I shouldn’t have said that. It was insensitive to say what I said, and I’m sorry.”
“No, no, no! Don’t say sorry! Answer Tran!”
“I can’t. I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t know why we’re fighting here. And I didn’t join the Navy because I wanted to, I joined the Navy to keep from being drafted into the army.”
“OK. OK. Tran answer Power. Tran not want to fight. Tran get draft. Tran in army because Tran get draft. Tran no want to fight cousin. Tran no want to fight brotha. Tran say answer not simple. Tran right, answer not simple. Right?”
“Brother? You have a brother on the other side?”
“Yes. Brotha V.C.”
“Oh, my God! You’re kidding!”
“Why Tran lie? Brotha V.C. Tran no want to fight brotha.”
“God! It isn’t simple, is it Tran?”
“No. No simple.”
He put the jeep in gear and pulled out. We passed through the main gate at China Beach and he parked just inside the compound on the left. When he turned off the ignition, he turned and touched me gently on the knee. He was smiling again.
“Tran not mean to get angry. Tran sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too.”
“Why you come China Beach?”
“To call my parents.”
“Ah, call home? Call mama san and papa san?”
“Meet Tran here when done.”
“Meet you here after I make my call?”
“Yes. I take you back DaNang.”
As soon as Tran and I parted company I went straight to the MARS facility. The line was incredibly long. I stood in line for well over an hour, and when I finally got to the operator who placed my call there was no answer. Standing in line for that long and not getting a connection was demoralizing.
Just inside the main gate - just off to the left as you entered the compound - there was a small wooden structure that resembled a makeshift lemonade stand. Every time I’d ever been to China Beach I’d seen it, but it was always empty; nobody was ever manning the facility. I’d always wondered what the structure was and what it was used for. As I left the MARS facility and headed back toward the main gate, I glanced over to my right - toward the lemonade stand - and saw a sight that stopped me dead in my tracks. Women! Round-eyed, American women!
There were two of them, two young American girls, one blonde and the other a brunette, and they were all decked out in white uniforms. I couldn’t help myself, I headed straight for them. When I got up close I realized that their uniforms were Red Cross issue. They were standing inside the wooden structure and I could hear a coffee pot percolating. As soon as I stepped up to the stand, the blonde smiled and spoke to me:
“Hello, soldier. Would you like some coffee? And a donut?”
“I’m not a soldier. I’m a sailor.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Forgive me, I’m new.”
“That’s all right. And yea, coffee and a donut sounds good.”
The brunette placed an opened box of donuts on the counter.
“Help yourself, sailor. Get as many as you want, but the coffee’s still brewin’, it won’t be ready for a minute or two.”
I grabbed two glazed donuts and started munching. As soon as I got a good mouthful, the blonde asked me a question:
“So, where you from, sailor?”
I still had a mouthful of donut and it took me a few seconds to swallow so I could answer her. Both girls got tickled as I almost choked in the process, and the one who’d asked me the question began to blush and apologize.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked until you were finished chewing.”
I finally got the donut down and responded:
“No, no ... that’s OK. I’m from Georgia. Columbus, Georgia.”
The brunette spoke up and surprised me with her response:
“Columbus, Georgia? Hey, I know somebody from Columbus.”
“A girl. She works for the Red Cross, too. I met her in the Atlanta office. She lives in Atlanta now, but she said when she was younger that she used to live in Columbus.”
“What’s her name?”
“Oh, you probably don’t know her. Columbus is a big city, right?”
“Yea, but what-the-hell. What’s her name. I might know her.”
“I doubt it, but what-the-heck. Her name is Leonore. Leonore Barr.”
I’d just taken another bite out of the donut - a big, whoppin’ mouthful - and when she said ‘Leonore Barr’ I almost choked on it. I struggled until I finally got the mouthful down and then screamed a reply:
“You know Leonore?”
“Yes, do you?”
“Yes! I went to junior high and high school with her!”
“Wait. I thought she said she moved to Brunswick when she was in high school?”
“She did ... when we were in the tenth grade ... but I know her. In fact, we were really good friends. I even dated her for a while.”
“No! Seriously! I know her!”
The blonde poured me a cup of coffee and the brunette and I spent the next few minutes talking about how strange it was that I actually knew someone that she knew. I eventually asked her if she had an address for Leonore so that I could write to her. She said that that was against Red Cross policy, to give out addresses of Red Cross personnel, but she said that she’d send my address to Leonore, and that Leonore could write me if she wanted to. I borrowed a pencil and a piece of paper from the blonde and eagerly wrote my name and mailing address on it.
We continued with the small talk until I finally finished my coffee, then I said good-bye to both of them.
I walked back to where Tran had parked the jeep and he was waiting for me. He was sitting in the driver’s seat with a big grin on his face.
“You talk fam’ly?”
“No. Nobody home.”
“Too bad. Tran sorry.”
“That’s OK. I’ll try again tomorrow.”
“You ready go?”
I climbed in the jeep and Tran backed it out of the parking spot. As he drove through the gate and back onto the highway we continued our conversation.
“So, Tran. Tell me about your brother.”
“Brotha V.C. Brotha live near Cua Viet. You know Cua Viet?”
“Yes. It’s up north ... in I Corps.”
“Yes. Tran family live near Cua Viet. Tran motha live near Cua Viet.”
“When did you see your brother last? I bet it’s been a long time.”
“No. No long time. Maybe ... uh ... maybe six month.”
“You saw your brother six months ago?”
“No. Five month. Saw brotha five month. Motha birthday.”
“You saw your brother five months ago? On your mother’s birthday?”
“Home. Tran go see motha. Brotha go see motha. Tran see brotha at home. Motha birthday.”
“You saw your brother at your home?”
“And you didn’t ... I mean ... you didn’t ...”
Tran gave me a very strange look as I tried to say what I was thinking. He knew what I was trying to say, and he seemed confused that I would try to say it.
“Didn’t what? Didn’t kill brotha? You want Tran kill brotha?”
“Uh ... no ... not kill ... just ... didn’t ...”
“What you want Tran do? Tran go home see motha. Brotha go home see motha. Tran glad to see brotha. Brotha glad to see Tran.”
“I’m sorry, Tran. That just seems so strange. Two enemies; at home; two enemies at war with each other and they go home, at the same time ...”
“Yes. To see motha on birthday. What strange? Love motha! Love brotha!”
“It’s not strange, Tran. It’s just ... (pause) ... it’s just ... (pause) ... well, yes, it is strange.”
“No. Not strange.”
What did you say to each other?”
“Hello, brotha. I glad see you are well. (pause) What you think we say?”
“Did you talk about the war?”
“No! Motha no let talk war!”
“You didn’t talk about the fact that you’re enemies? That you’re on different sides?”
“Why say that? He know that! I know that! No have to say!”
“What did you say to each other when you left?”
“Take care of self. Be careful. Hope to see later. Give hug, give kiss.”
“What about your cousins; the ones in the N.V.A.? Do you ever get to see them?”
“No see in long, long time. But talk.”
“Talk? You talk to them?”
Tran gave me a very confused look.
“How? Why you say ‘how’? How you think talk?”
“How did you talk with them ... if you didn’t see them?”
“You talked to them on the phone?”
“Yes. Why you no follow? Why you no understand telephone?”
“Tran. Excuse me, but I’m having trouble picturing you talking with an enemy - during war time - on the telephone. Who called who?”
“Cousin Le call me. Call to say uncle die in Hanoi.”
“Oh! I’m sorry.”
“Cancer of throat. Die very slow.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Where did he call you? Where were you when he called you?”
“Where I work.”
“Where do you work?”
“Military office ... DaNang.”
“You work in a South Vietnamese military office? In DaNang?”
“And your cousin, an N.V.A. soldier, called you at work?”
“I give number.”
“Why you say what?”
“Where did he call you from; North Vietnam?”
“No. Phnompenh. Kampuchea.”
“He called you from Cambodia?”
“From where in Cambodia?”
I kept trying to formulate an image in my mind; Tran talking on the telephone in a military office in DaNang; to his cousin - an N.V.A. soldier - who was in a hotel in Phnompenh; in Cambodia. An obvious question that called out to me - that begged for an answer - was WHO PAID FOR THE CALL? Did Tran’s cousin call COLLECT? And if so, did Tran accept the charges. I wanted to ask those questions, I wanted answers to those questions, but before I could ask them, Tran had a question for me.
“You never say why G.I. come Vietnam. Why you think G.I. come Vietnam?”
“That’s not an easy question, Tran. I’m not really sure. I think I know why, but I’m not sure.”
“That OK. Why you THINK G.I. come?”
“During World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union were allies. But when the fighting in Europe ended, the soviets kept all the eastern European territories that they’d occupied on their march to Berlin.”
“Yes. Tran know. Iron Curtain.”
“Yes. And they forced all of those countries to be communist. And then, when the war in the Pacific ended, Russia began to move on some of the Japanese islands; they wanted territory in the Pacific, too.”
“Yes. I know.”
“But McArthur refused to let them hold those territories. I don’t know how he did that, but he did. Anyway, as the Cold War grew in intensity, Russia began to supply arms and munitions to countries in the Pacific to carry on that fight for them. And one of those countries they offered help to was Vietnam - and specifically - Ho Chi Minh. You under-stand so far?”
“Yes, I follow.”
“Well, at the same time - after World War II - the French came back to Vietnam and set up their colonial government again. And Ho Chi Minh, with help from not only the Russians, but from the Chinese, too, began fighting a war against the French. Eventually, Ho Chi Minh defeated the French at Dienbienphu.”
“Yes, Dienbienphu. Ho Chi Minh defeat Francaise.”
“Yea. And president Eisenhower thought that after Ho Chi Minh defeated the French, that he’d try to conquer Cambodia and Laos and Thailand. And that fear that Ho Chi Minh would do that is called the Domino Theory. And that’s why America sent troops to Vietnam, to keep Ho Chi Minh from winning the war, to keep him from conquering those other countries, one at a time, like dominos falling one at a time.”
“No! Ho Chi Minh not conquer otha country! Never want to conquer otha country!”
“How do you know that?”
“How you know that?”
“Why you think Ho Chi Minh do that?”
“It doesn’t matter what I think. But I think our government thinks that Ho Chi Minh is just acting as an agent for the Russians and the Chinese; that Ho Chi Minh is fighting the war for the Russians and the Chinese, to bring more countries in this hemisphere under communist rule.”
“That crazy talk! Never happen! Vietnam never fight war for Chin!”
“Vietnam never fight war for Chin! For anybody! Ho Chi Minh fight war to make Vietnam free; make Francaise go home! Vietnam hate Francaise! That why Ho Chi Minh fight Francaise! Not fight war for Chin! For Rus!”
“How do you know that, Tran? How do you know that’s true?”
“Remember what I say when talk about Tran Hung Dao? Remember I say that Vietnam fight Chin for one thousand year, two thousand year?”
“Vietnam hate Chin! Vietnam hate Chin more than Vietnam hate Francaise! Vietnam fight Chin for boocoo thousand year. Vietnam never fight for Chin! Vietnam never make war for Chin! Vietnam never fight for Rus!”
“The North Vietnamese take arms, munitions and food from the Chinese. They move hundreds of tons down the Ho Chi Minh trail every day. And you say they aren’t fighting for Chin - for China?”
“No. You no know why Vietnam take arm from Chin?”
“I think I do.”
“Tran no think you do. Tran no think you know why.”
“Do you know why?”
“Yes. All Vietnamee know why! When World War II start, Hitler defeat Francaise. Hitler and Nippon ally.”
“Germany and Japan were allies?”
“Yes. Nippon already take Vietnam. Hitler give Nippon Vietnam. Nippon need Vietnamee rice.”
“Japan conquered Vietnam, but it was a French colony. So after Hitler conquered France, technically, Vietnam came under German control. But Hitler let the Japanese have it, is that what you’re saying?”
“Yes. Hitler no have troop Vietnam. But Nippon have troop Vietnam, already have troop Vietnam.”
“OK. I follow. Go on.”
“President Roosveld send man name Donovan to Vietnam. He very old man; jump out of plane in jungle. He talk with Ho Chi Minh.”
“Donovan? Who was he?”
“He form O essa essa.”
“Yes. O essa essa. Now you call C.I.A. But then call O essa essa.”
“Donovan was with the American O.S.S.? And the O.S.S. is now called the C.I.A.?”
“Yes. Donovan come to ask Ho Chi Minh make army. Donovan ask Ho Chi Minh to make army; to fight Nippon.”
“Donovan asked Ho Chi Minh to form an army to fight the Japanese?”
“Yes. He say if Ho Chi Minh make army; if Ho Chi Minh fight Nippon, then Nippon have to send more troop to Vietnam; send more troop to fight Ho Chi Minh army. The more troop Nippon send Vietnam to fight Ho Chi Minh army, less troop fight G.I. army on Tarawa, Okinawa ... you follow?”
“If Ho Chi Minh formed an army to fight the Japanese, then the Japanese would have to send more troops to Vietnam. And if the Japanese sent more troops to fight against Ho Chi Minh’s army, that would leave fewer Japanese troops on Tarawa, and Okinawa, the islands the U.S. Marines had to take one at a time in the battle in the Pacific. Right?”
“Did Ho Chi Minh say yes?”
“Yes. But Ho Chi Minh make rule.”
“Rule? You mean a condition?”
“Ho Chi Minh tell Donovan to tell Roosveld that he make army, that he fight Nippon, but only if Roosveld not let Francaise come back Vietnam when war over.”
“Ho Chi Minh said he would fight the Japanese, but only if Roosevelt promised not to let the French come back to Vietnam - to make it a colony again - when the war was over?”
“Well, I’ll be damned! What happened? Why’d the U.S. let the French come back?”
“Roosveld die before war over!”
“Damn! That’s right!”
“When Francaise start to come back - when war over - Ho Chi Minh go Washington. He talk Truman. He tell Truman what Roosveld say.”
“And what did Truman say?”
“Truman say he no know what Roosveld say. Truman say he no stop Francaise if Francaise come back Vietnam.”
“Tran no kid! Power no know this?”
“No! I didn’t know. How do you know this?”
“All Vietnamee know this! All Vietnamee not follow why America come Vietnam to fight for Francaise after Ho Chi Minh defeat Francaise! All Vietnamee not know why America fight for corrupt politic in South Vietnam! Why Truman let Francaise come back? Do you know why Truman let Francaise come back?”
“No, Tran. I don’t know why. But I do know that there was a lot that Truman didn’t know. He didn’t even know we had the atom bomb before he became president. It doesn’t surprise me that he didn’t know about a promise that Roosevelt had made to Ho Chi Minh.”
“All Vietnamee no understand. No understand why great freedom country no want Vietnam be freedom country. OK America fight war with Brit; become free from Brit. But no OK Vietnam fight war with Francaise. No OK Vietnam become free from Francaise. Why?”
I was stunned. Everything that Tran had just said made perfect sense, but it was a big shock to hear it - to hear what he was saying. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. I thought about what he’d said for the longest time; and neither of us said anything for the longest time. All I could think about was how foolish we looked - as a people - as a nation. Finally, I broke the silence.
“Tran. The Vietnamese people must think we’re ... we’re ... dingy dow.”
“Ding da dow?”
“Yes. All Vietnamee think America crazy. All Vietnamee, even South Vietnamee, think America crazy to fight for corrupt politic.”
“Let me ask you another question.”
“What do you think would happen if all American soldiers went home tomorrow - back to the United States?”
“No more G.I. fight? What happen if all G.I. go home? Tomorrow?”
“War be ova in ... maybe ... one year.”
“And what would happen then?”
“North Vietnam win war! Peace come Vietnam! Vietnam be free!”
“But Vietnam would be communist.”
“Bigga ... bigga ... how you say?”
“Sometime hear G.I. say ... uh ... BIGGA DEAL!”
“Yes. Bigga deal! Vietnam be free!”
“You don’t think Vietnam would invade Cambodia, or Laos, or Thailand?”
“No. Vietnam never invade otha country. Never in all time. Vietnam only fight when otha country come Vietnam; invade Vietnam. Remember Tran Hung Dao? No invade Chin! Chin invade Vietnam! Then, Tran Hung Dao fight Chin! Then Tran Hung Dao invade Chin!”
“But if North Vietnam wins, won’t that be bad for you?”
“Yes. For short time. Tran go prison. Tran stay prison one, maybe two year. But peace come Vietnam. Tran go prison if peace come Vietnam. Go prison OK with Tran if peace come Vietnam.”
“You don’t think there’s any way the South could win the war? If America goes home?”
“G.I. fight North Vietnam ten year! No win war! You think South win war if G.I. go home?”
“OK. Maybe you no ding da dow.”
“You already know how it’s going to end, don’t you?”
“You mean North Vietnam win war?”
“Yes. Bound to happen. One day happen.”
“I’m sorry, but I still don’t understand why you fight; why you’re in the army.”
His smile turned into a laugh.
“Tran get draft! Remember? What you think Tran do? Go say to army, ‘hey, Tran no fight no more! War ding da dow! Tran go home now!’”
I started laughing, too. He was right! We were both trapped! Neither of us had any say-so in the matter at all! It was as though we were both caught in a giant snowball that was rolling down a steep mountainside. Neither of us wanted to be in the situation we were in, but there was nothing we could do about it.
For the rest of the ride back to Tien Sha, Tran and I talked about other things. He asked me what my job was in the Navy. I told him that I worked at the piers. He’d heard about how hard the work was there. He’d heard about the Korean getting killed, too. He seemed very concerned about my welfare, about me getting hurt or killed in the future, and I thanked him for his concern.
When we got to the main gate, Tran stopped the jeep on the side of the road and we began to say our good-byes. Tran spoke first:
“Power. Very nice meet you. Very nice know you.”
“Nice to know you, too, Tran.”
“You take care of self. No be wrong place wrong time.”
“You, too. And if you talk with your cousin again, tell him I said hello. And your brother ... tell him I said hello, too.”
Tran got a strange look on his face; a confused look; a look that implied that he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“You say hello to V.C.? You say hello to N.V.A.? They are your enemy!”
“No, Tran. They are family of my friend.”
Tran leaned across the jeep and embraced me. It wasn’t a long embrace, in fact, it was very short. I got out of the jeep. When I did, he hurriedly drove away; very fast; with tears in both eyes.
The torrential rains that fell during the first few days of the stand-down had subsided by the time I came out of my hibernation mode. The sky remained dark and overcast for the remainder of the month - a color that ranged from a very dark blue to an almost purple - and the ambient daytime temperature dropped to an almost comfortable 78 degrees.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wasn’t the only one who’d undergone a drastic personality change in Nam. Three or four days after we came out of hibernation, tempers began to flare. It seems that everyone had developed a sarcastic attitude; everyone had a chip on his shoulder; everyone had pent-up frustrations that needed to be released, and with all the free time we had - time to get on each others nerves - those pent-up frustrations got the better of many and confrontations began to occur.
Fights would break out over the smallest of indiscretions. Someone would bump into somebody and it would come to blows. Someone would sit on someone’s bunk - without permission - and it would come to blows. Someone would play his recorder - without using the headphones - and it would come to blows. Eventually, word about these confrontations got back to the boson and he instituted a watch schedule. Instituting the watch - forcing us to stand duty - was a shot over our bow; a warning. The watch schedule was limited, we still had some much needed time off, but by instituting the watches, the boson was letting us know that he’d do whatever he had to do to bring our behavior into line.
At some point in the middle of February, ten or twelve days after the typhoon alert was implemented, the military weather watchers determined that the storm threat was over. All of the ships that had been in port - and those that had been waiting to enter port seaside - were contacted via radio (or teletype) and told that the piers were operational again. All had sought sanctuary from the storm in other ports. Some had gone north to Hong Kong; some had gone south to the Philippines, and when the all clear was issued, they began the slow, lumbering voyage back to DaNang.
The boson and his staff calculated when the first ship or two would arrive and organized a staffing system that would ensure that there would be someone at the piers to tie the ships up when they pulled in. Basically, that staffing system involved having one hatch team on duty at the piers during both the day and night shift. The schedule started out with team Alpha on both shifts reporting for duty on the first day, team Bravo on the second, team Charlie on the third and so on. Accordingly, hatch team Charlie reported for work on the third day. No ships had arrived by the third day, but two came in, about eight hours apart, when it was our turn to pull duty.
The Korean and Vietnamese civilian teams (men and women) got to work the first ships that came in. Their livelihoods were at stake, and they’d been out of work for several weeks. It wasn’t until day eight, when all but one slip at the piers was empty, that things returned to normal and all the Navy teams reported for duty.
When March came, hatch team Charlie rotated back to night shift. Again, there was no measurable tonnage, just hole after hole of beer, soft drinks and refrigerated goods. It was back-breaking work and it took a while for each team to get back into the swing of things.
Sometime in early March, just after we returned to work at the piers, we were working a beer hole on a Lykes. We were working nights and we’d just started the shift; it was sometime around eight o’clock and there was still a little daylight left; the very tip-top of the sun was just barely visible on the western horizon. Suddenly, out of nowhere, we heard a siren. It wasn’t the red alert siren, we knew what that sounded like, and this sound wasn’t that loud. We quickly deduced that it was the siren on an emergency vehicle. As the sound got closer and closer, louder and louder, everyone working on the Lykes stopped what they were doing and stared toward the main gate. The sound got louder and louder and nearer and nearer and all at once we saw it. It was an ambulance; an olive drab ambulance with large red crosses painted on its white side panels. We were working the forward hole on the Lykes and the ship was moored in one of the center slips. Accord-ingly, we were only 40 to 50 yards from Alpha Shack and we stared intently as the vehicle came to a stop right in front of the building. The bosun had heard the siren and he’d come outside and was standing on the steps when the vehicle pulled up. We listened intently as the ambulance driver leaped out of the vehicle and ran up to the bosun yelling at the top of his lungs:
“Where is he?”
“The injured party!”
“What injured party?”
“You didn’t call for an ambulance?”
“Not that I know of.”
“We got a call to pick up a gunshot victim at Deep Water Piers.”
“How’d you get the call?”
“The only phones here are in my office; nobody here placed the call.”
“Are you sure?”
“I don’t know what to tell ya’. Are you sure they didn’t say ‘near Deep Water Piers’? Something like that?”
“No! They said Deep Water Piers!”
“Sorry. We don’t have a gunshot victim here.”
The ambulance driver jumped back in his vehicle and sped back toward the main highway with his siren blaring. As the siren slowly faded away in the distance we went back to working the hole.
Ten minutes later we heard the siren again. It got closer and closer and louder and louder, and just like before it came flying through the main gate and skidded to a stop in front of Alpha Shack. The driver got out and had another exchange with the bosun who’d come back outside when he heard the siren coming again.
“God-damn it! Dispatch says we’ve got a gunshot victim at Deep Water Piers! Where is he?”
“Son! If you’ve really got a gunshot victim, he ain’t here. I don’t know what to tell ya’, but he ain’t here! OK?”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure, son! Have you tried the Small Craft facility next door?”
“No! How do you get to it?”
“It’s hard to see the entrance, but it’s the next right after you pull out of our main gate.”
“God-damn it! Shit!”
The driver then jumped back in the ambulance and burned rubber as he headed back toward the main highway.
Sometime around midnight, when we broke for chow, we finally found out what had happened.
One of the crew members on one of the boats at the Small Craft facility had just completed his tour of duty. His last day on duty had been two days before and he’d spent the morning and afternoon checking out of Tien Sha and getting his paperwork stamped at the White Elephant in DaNang. His flight back to the states was scheduled to leave the next morning. After supper, he’d caught a ride back to the Small Craft facility to say a final good-bye to his crewmates.
The boat crews had just come in off patrol when he arrived and he walked down the dock and boarded his old boat. He propped his right leg up on the gunnel and was carrying on a casual conversation with several of his crewmates. Meanwhile, one of the crew members on another boat nearby began to disarm the .50 caliber machine gun mounted on a pedestal mount in the rear of his boat. He opened the cover, removed the belt of .50 caliber ammo, and then slammed the cover closed. His next move should have been to pull the handle back on the .50 to eject any round that might have been chambered at some point during the patrol. But he didn’t do so. Another crew member, just goofing around, walked up to the .50 and started playing John Wayne. He grabbed the .50 handles and brought both thumbs down hard on the butterfly trigger. BOOM! It happened in an instant. The .50 round followed its course - fast and true - and caught the goin’ home sailor right in the center of his upper right thigh.
The scuttlebutt for several days after the incident was that if the ambulance could have gotten to him in time, if they could have gotten him to the hospital in time, he might have had a chance. But the Small Craft guys didn’t post anybody at their gate to wave the ambulance down. All the person who called said was ‘go to Deep Water Piers’. If you know where the piers are, we’re right there!’ So, the ambulance driver came to the piers. TWICE! It took almost an hour from the time the call was made for them to get the man to the hospital. An hour was too long; he bled to death in the ambulance.
One night, sometime in early March, I noticed that there were some Army personnel walking through the pier compound when we reported for duty. At first, there just seemed to be ten or twelve of them, but as the night wore on I began to see more or more. We were working a refer ship that night, and right before chow an Army sergeant and three or four privates showed up to watch us work the hole. They didn’t say anything, they just watched.
The next night there were more Army personnel. The next night there were even more. We’d been told back in October or November that the Army would eventually take over the piers. We’d known for some time that it was going to happen, the only question had been ‘when’.
There was only one question on everyone’s mind: once the Army took over, what was going to happen to us? Scuttlebutt began to spread like wildfire. The first rumor I heard was that everybody was going home. A day or two later that rumor had been amended; everybody who’d in-country for more than six months was going home; then it was everybody with more than eight months; then nine.
One night, in late March, we reported for duty as usual. We stood around and joked with each other as usual; we stood muster as usual; the boson made his announcements as usual; the hatch team captains went inside and drew hole assignments as usual. Then, when the hatch team captains came out of Alpha shack, the boson came out with them. That wasn’t usual. He had another announcement to make and it was totally unexpected:
“Gentlemen, as you know, the Army is in the process of taking over pier operations. Some of you are going to get an early release from Nam; you’re going home early. Some of you will finish out your tours here, but you’ll be reassigned to another duty location in DaNang. But some of you are being reassigned to another location in-country. The following twelve men have been reassigned to Navsuppact Saigon. Please listen carefully. If I call your name, hang around after muster, your name’s already on a flight list and you need to start out-processing immediately.”
I listened as the boson read the names. I didn’t have to listen long; mine was the third one called. I noticed right off the bat that there was something peculiar about the names on the boson’s list. We were all rated; we were all E-4s.
The boson gave the twelve of us a chance to say good-bye to our friends. I walked over and shook Browder’s hand.
“Good luck, Browd. You did a good job with this bunch; it’s a shame we never got H.T.O.M.”
“Another month or two and we would have, I’m sure. Keep your head down, and cover your ass, OK.”
“You can count on it.”
I shook hands with the rest of the crew and finished my good-byes in a hurry.
When we’d all said our good-byes, the boson called the twelve of us who were leaving into Alpha Shack. When we got inside, the boson handed each of us an ice-cold beer. Then, he said his goodbyes.
“Gentlemen. It’s been a pleasure to have each of you under my command. I don’t think I’ve ever been associated with a harder working group of people. I want you to know how much I appreciate the effort you’ve put forth, and the only way I know how to do that is to recommend you for commendations. You’ve all been recommended for a Meritorious Unit Citation, but I’m recommending each of you for an individual award as well. A Navy Achievement Medal.
“I told the cattle car drivers to wait, they’re sittin’ out there right now waitin’ on you, but I didn’t want you to get away before I had this private word with you. Again, thank you for your hard work and dedication, and I wish each of you well at your next command.”
When the boson finished speaking, he handed each of us our preliminary orders and a copy of the flight list that our names were on. Not all of us were on the same flight. Only one other person in the group was on the same flight with me.
Each of us shook hands with the boson as he handed out the papers. I was the last one he came to. He got a big smile on his face before he spoke to me:
“Powers. Congratulations on making E-4.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Congratulations on making E-4 ... again.”
“I know you put on the hardware early.”
“Am I in trouble?”
“No. I also know that you went back to Tien Sha after the tank snafu.”
“Am I in trouble?”
“No. Just don’t pull that shit at your next command. Bullshit happens in the Navy, son. You just have to learn how to deal with it. Your next C.O. may not know how valuable you are right off the bat. Keep your temper in check and you’ll make a damn good petty officer. OK?”
“Good luck, and keep your head down. Saigon ain’t like DaNang. You can get your shit blowed away just walkin’ down the street down there.”
When the boson dismissed us, the twelve of us walked to the main gate. The cattle cars were waiting for us and I boarded Foxtrot’s car.
“Wha’d you do now?”
“Nothin’. Just got orders for Saigon. I’m outta here.”
The cattle cars pulled out just as I started walking down the center aisle, shaking each man’s hand. As I did so, I began to notice that some of the guys were missing.
Yogi spoke up.
“Went home in December.”
“End of January.”
“Damn! I didn’t get to say good-bye.”
“Well. You’re gettin’ a chance to tell us.”
“That’s true. Good-bye fellas. I’ve really missed bein’ with you these last few months.”
Bullwinkle was his usual self.
“We missed you, too, asshole! Why I ain’t had an itch to drop a crowbar on nobody ever since you left!”
“Kiss my ass!”
We all started laughing. It was good to see the guys one last time. We talked all the way back to Tien Sha; remembering the good ol’ days; good ol’ days that had just occurred only two or three months before.
Just as we got back to the barracks, Yogi introduced the new guys. One already had a nickname. They called him Wiley, Jr.
“Why’d you name him that?”
“Look at his fuckin’ hard hat!”
His hard hat had three strips of tape on it.
“He’s goin’ for your record, man.”
I took off my hard hat and handed it to Yogi.
“Here, keep this. When he fucks up again, you won’t have to waste any tape.”
Everybody had one final laugh as we exited the car. Yogi suggested that we all meet up at the E.M. club in an hour or so to toast my departure. Everybody agreed, and we spent that final evening together getting sloshed.
I got up bright and early the following morning. I got a shower and then headed over to the chow hall. As soon as I finished breakfast I went straight to the receiving office.
The guy at receiving already had my paperwork ready. He instructed me to take the paperwork over to the White Elephant; he said they’d check me out and give me my travel documents, my service record and my official set of orders there. As I was about to leave, I thought I’d ask him about the procedure for applying for my free 30-day leave, the leave I had coming for extending my tour.
“I’ve extended my tour, and I have a 30-day leave coming. Can I fill out a chit for that here, or do I do that over there?”
“They can take care of that at the Elephant. How long you been here?”
“It’ll be seven months on the 28th.”
“Hey, you’re eligible now. Go ahead and fill out your chit over there, and tell ‘em to mark it ASAP.”
“As of right now, they’re pullin’ everybody on extension for early withdrawal before they do any of their extended time. Unless something changes in the next few months, I doubt very seriously if you’ll serve even one day longer than your original date of departure.”
“No. It’s true. Go ahead and put in for your leave now. If you get it, they can’t count it against you if they rotate you home later, before you serve any of your extended time.”
“Thanks for the tip.”
I caught a bus to the center of DaNang and rode the ferry over to the White Elephant. It took about an hour to complete the check-out process. I applied for my leave and the guy marked it ASAP.
The flight list document that I’d gotten from the boson the night before only had the names of the people on the flight, it didn’t have a departure date. When I got the official flight list at the Elephant, I was shocked. My flight was leaving that night!
When I got back to Tien Sha I went to the chow hall for lunch. After lunch, I went straight back to the barrack and packed my seabag. Then, I turned in my linen at the master-at-arms office and hoisted my seabag up on my shoulder. As I walked toward the main gate to catch the bus to the 15th. Aerial Port, I stopped in the middle of the street. I turned and took one last look at Camp Tien Sha. I tried to conjure up some good memories of the place; some reason that I’d miss it later. The only thing that came to mind was watching ‘Rama’ with the guys on Foxtrot. When nothing else came to mind, I shouldered my seabag and walked to the gate to catch the bus.
The bus ride to the 15th. Aerial Port brought back memories of my first day in-country. When we passed the school where I’d seen the kids playing soccer, I remembered the jeep accident and the dead American, his brains all over the roadway. That thought brought Jimmy Lloyd and Earles to mind and I wondered what had become of them.
When the bus got to the terminal, I exited and went into the main building. I walked over to the military counter and showed the guy there my paperwork. He pointed to a counter at the far end of the building next to a side entrance. I reported there and the Air Force guy on duty checked me in.
“You’re gonna be on a C-130 bound for Ton Son Nhut in Saigon. It’s an evening flight. The crew will probably wanna boogie as soon as they can, so stand by, don’t go wandering off. The pilot’s gonna have some cargo to contend with, so when our guys get the cargo in place, they’ll call you and the other four guys on the manifest and show you how to secure yourselves for takeoff. Any questions?”
“Well, make yourself comfortable over by the door. The ground crew will call you when they’re ready to tie you up.”
I had no idea what he meant by ‘tying me up’, but I assumed it had something to do with how one traveled as a passenger on a cargo plane.
As the hours went by, the other four passengers arrived one at a time. They were all Navy, too. One of them was from the piers, he and I were on the same shift and we’d gotten the word about the transfer at the same time. Two of them were strangers, I’d never seen them before, but right off the bat I got a funny feeling about the fourth guy. He looked familiar. I knew I didn’t know him, but there was something about his face, about the way he walked, about the timber of his voice. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew I’d seen him somewhere before.
The five of us made small talk for twenty or thirty minutes. Then, suddenly, right in the middle of a sentence, while he was talking, I figured out how I knew the fourth guy.
“Man, I’ve got the clap! I gotta go to the bathroom BAD, but it hurts so bad when I go I try to wait as long as I can.”
“No, you idiot! The longer you wait, the more you’ll piss! And the more you piss, the longer it’ll hurt!”
“Damn! I never thought of that.”
“How-in-the-hell did you get the clap? DaNang is off limits! Did you bang a mama san in the head or somethin’?”
“Hell, no! I used to sneak over to the ville every now and then.”
“Yea, you know ... that shantytown across the road from Tien Sha.”
“Shit, man. Why didn’t you report to sick bay? One shot of penicillin and you’d be good to go.”
“DaNang is off limits, remember? If I’d reported for sick bay at Tien Sha, with the clap, they’d have known that I’d been up to something I shouldn’t have been.”
“Shit, man! How long you had it?”
“I don’t know for sure ... four, five, six weeks. It’s been a while. It wasn’t so bad to begin with, but it’s gotten worse in the last week or so. I was gonna go to sick bay two or three days ago, but when I found out I was gettin’ transferred to Saigon I decided to wait.”
“Saigon’s not off limits. Guys get laid in Saigon all the time. If I report to sick bay there, with the clap, it won’t be no big deal.”
In no time at all I knew this guy was one of the four horny sailors that I’d seen scurrying through the fence a month or so back. I started grinning; I couldn’t help myself; all I could think about was how surprised he must have been when he got back to the wire - back to the coke can - and realized that the slit in the fence wasn’t there; wasn’t where it was supposed to be. I knew he was one of the four, but I wanted confirmation, so I asked a few leading questions:
“Hey, man. How’d you get through the fence at Tien Sha? There’s barbed wire all around the compound?”
“There’s a place in the wire, right next to the pier barracks, where there’s a slit. The slit was marked with a coke can, you know, hangin’ on the top rung of wire so you could find it in the dark.”
“Yea. One night, though, some asshole moved the can. Fucked up everything! In fact, that was the night I got this shit!”
“Bummer. How’d you get back in?”
“We had to wait till the sun came up. Finally, when there was enough light to see, we found the slit. Whoever moved the damn thing only moved it eight or ten feet, but we couldn’t find it in the dark.”
I wasn’t thinking about what I was saying and, before I knew it, I’d dug myself a hole.
“Sounds to me like you and your three friends were lucky as hell. If security had caught you you’d have gotten a mast for sure.”
“Yea. No kiddin’. A security jeep came by a couple of times and al ...”
He stopped in mid-sentence.
“Wait a minute. How’d you know there were four of us?”
I realized my mistake. I didn’t know what to say, so I improvised.
“You said so.”
“No I didn’t.”
“You said you were with a group.”
“I said WE, I didn’t say how many. How’d you know there were four of us? Me and my three friends?”
I didn’t say anything. A full minute went by and I didn’t say anything. The others were looking at me, waiting for an answer. The sailor with the clap was looking at me, waiting for an answer. There was nothing to do but tell the truth.
“OK. OK. You caught me.”
“I moved the can.”
“I was drinkin’ ... I was drinkin’ alone ... drinkin’ a lot! I was sittin’ on the stoop outside my barrack when I saw you guys sneak through the fence. I walked over after you entered the ville and scoped out the fence. That’s when I saw the can. I figured it marked the slit, and I felt like playing a practical joke, so I moved it.”
“Look, I was gonna come over and show you where the slit was when you got back; I wanted to see the looks on your faces when you couldn’t find it; but one thing led to another and ... well ... I forgot about it.”
“One thing led to another?”
His question was aimed at me, but the other pier sailor answered him.
“I think what he’s tryin’ to say is, he was sloshed.”
The sailor with the clap turned and looked at the other pier sailor. Then he turned and looked back at me.
The others all started laughing. Their laughter was infectious; I started laughing, too. A moment or so later, still yelling ‘you son-of-a-bitch’, the clap sailor started laughing himself.
We boarded the C-130 just as the sun was setting. The cargo that had been placed onboard was secured up forward and there was ample room in the rear for the five of us. The ground crew came aboard and showed us how to strap ourselves to the bulkhead. They went on to say that once we were airborne we could disconnect our harnesses and move around.
We took off just after sunset. About 40 minutes into the flight one of the guys laid down on the deck. In no time at all he was snoring. One at a time the rest of us did the same thing. The droning of the engines and the vibration of the aircraft quickly lulled me to sleep.
My last thoughts, as I drifted into la-la land, were about what lay in store for me in Saigon. I had no earthly idea where I’d end up or what I’d be doing, but I did know one thing: no matter where they sent me or what job they assigned me to, no place, and no job, could be as difficult and demanding as the piers had been.
I don’t know how long I was out, but when I began to wake up, slowly, in a groggy state, I was in for a big surprise. I was laying in a fetal position on my side on the deck of the aircraft. When I began to come to I could feel air blowing in my face. I opened my eyes and looked straight ahead. I had assumed a position face-down on the deck, and besides feeling the air on my face, I could see lights. The lights seemed to be moving ever so slowly. When I realized that the lights were several thousand feet below me, I bolted into a sitting position. From my up-right position - eyes wide open - I suddenly realized that my right eye, as I lay on the deck, had been right over a small, minuscule crack on the deck - a crack that was supposed to be there - a junction point where the decking material came together. The crack was no wider than the thickness of a fingernail, and it took a moment for me to realize that I wasn’t in any danger.
I took a deep breath and looked around. The others were all still asleep. I took another deep breath. The air was clean, cold and invigorating. Suddenly, I realized that the smell - that horrible, pungent, acrid smell that had filled my nostrils since I first arrived in-country - had all but disappeared. It was still there to a limited degree - it had permeated our clothing - but I quickly concluded that we were flying high enough to escape it temporarily. I continued taking deep breaths and enjoying the general absence of the odor.
Sometime after midnight one of the flight crew came back and told us to strap ourselves in; we were about to land at Ton Son Nhut. We did as we were told and in no time at all we were on the ground in Saigon.
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