Wayward Son: Chapter 3

Stuck in the Middle

vietnam music

The Inspector General was coming and we had a stockpile of unauthorized equipment. The Colonel ordered us to get rid of it by any means necessary. Some of it was from the Korean war, some of it was Naval and Air Force equipment, and all of it was being chopped up, burned, or buried. About $250,000 worth by my estimate. Still, we weren’t as bad as some units. One battalion got caught burying two brand new (turrets still in packing crates) Sheridan tanks.

As we sweated in the merciless dry season sun, we could see the tower that caused my ascent into abstinence. Hatchet Tower was used for spotting rocket and mortar attacks and directing return fire. Since our area was fairly secure, it had become a dumping ground for the worst of the dopers. Those who couldn’t function well even when straight. Three of them were sitting on the sandbags surrounding the tower. They were rocking in time to the music coming from what passed as a boom box in those days. Suddenly, one rocked right off the edge. He disappeared from our sight as he hit the ground. We threw down our shovels and ran up the hill. We got to the base of the tower just in time to see a PFC junkie dusting himself off and climbing back up the ladder.

“Are you ok?” we asked.

“Wow, what a rush!” he said as he climbed back up.

He finished his shift, then reported to the dispensary, where they treated him for cracked ribs and a sprained ankle. They didn’t bother giving him pain medication. The pure heroin that he was smoking was stronger than anything the medics could give him. That was enough for me. I would stay as sober as I could throughout the rest of my tour.

There was a full scale drug war going on when I was in Vietnam. And just like what was going to happen later back home, the U.S. government was losing. Premium Cambodian and Thai marijuana was $10 – 15 a pound, and pure heroin was $2.50 for a 10 gram vial (how I know this is a long story involving Lt. Johnson and a pathetic attempt at undercover drug busts). The army in all of its infinite wisdom had made pipes and cigarette papers unavailable in the PX and made possession of these items illegal. The idea was to make it hard for dopers to get high.

High command had evidently never been high or hung out with anyone who was. Dopers are very creative people. They made pipes out of all kinds of material. Empty brass shell casings were a particular favorite. The lazy dopers just emptied regular filter cigarettes of tobacco (which the military actually gave away or sold in th PX for a penny a piece) and refilled them with marijuana. Heroin addicts, (many of whom started by buying what they thought was cocaine) emptied part of the tobacco out of their cigarette and refilled it with heroin. Then all the dopers hung around places like the washroom (which had open screened sides that allowed them to see anybody coming (as well as disperse the smoke) and passed around their homemade joints.

Of course, people quickly forgot which were the marijuana joints (one of the prime indicators of a stoner is forgetfulness) and which were the heroin joints. Soon, most dopers were smoking heroin, which is just as addicting as any other form of ingestion. And those of us who didn’t indulge were constantly being asked to join the fun.

“I just want to get high with you one time so we can talk,” one doper told me.

“I talk better straight,” I replied.

He never believed me. The juicers, often referred to as goat ropers by the drug set because of their fondness for country and western music, were just as bad. There was Private Williams who drank brake fluid when the beer ran out. Of course, he puked it back up again but was greatly admired for his daring nonetheless. Or Jonsey, who liked to wake me up at midnight to ask why I didn’t want to have a drink with him.

“I’m trying to sleep,” I said, trying not to annoy him by stating the obvious since he was six inches taller than me.

“You’re not turning into a goddamn doper are you?”

“No.”

“’Cause I’ll beat the shit out of you if you are. Take a drink of my beer to prove it.”

For some reason, the juicers thought that beer and marijuana were somehow incompatible. If you used one, it was impossible to use the other. So I’d take a sip (as far as my vow was concerned, I wrote it off to medicinal purposes, like the alcohol in cold medicine) and he’d let me go back to sleep. One night, his best friend Don wanted to stop drinking at 2 a.m. and go to bed. Jonsey, who was celebrating some Southern holiday like National Kudzu week, punched him out, accusing Don of becoming a drug addict. Don took refuge in the doper room. Within six weeks, he was strung out on heroin.

People got high for many reasons: to escape boredom of the rear areas, to ease the pain of separation from loved ones, or to escape from the horrors of field life. They couldn’t understand how I could take Vietnam straight. I couldn’t take it any other way. Of course, some got high just for fun. Sgt. Marcos was on his third tour and he had the largest beer belly in the army. Quite a feat. He loved to pat it and say, “My daddy told me that when you have a good tool, build a shed over it to protect it.” His other favorite saying, to explain his divorce and many Vietnamese girlfriends, was, “For 16 years I thought I was in love. Then I came here and found out I was only in heat.”

Substance abuse was as bad in the field, a place I got to go quite often. I was the flying repairman, constantly taking “any available transportation” to god knows where to fix radio and computer problems. In the middle of Tet, I was stuck out in the middle of nowhere when Sgt. Marcos came to my rescue. He needed me to help out some ARVNs (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) in Xuan Loc as part of a deal he was trying to set up (equipping his jeep with a mini-gun). After four hours on a dusty road and six hours in an airless bunker setting up the ARVN communications center, I was dying of thirst. Of course, all Sgt. Marcos had brought was beer, which they were out of by the time I was willing to break my pledge. I had to drink the local water, getting the worst case of amoebic dysentery in history.

Marcos did get us home that night. Through roadblocks, an ambush, and an army of prostitutes, we drove. I was getting sicker in the back, and Marcos was complaining louder the more sober he got about how the driver better get us back before the NCO club closed. We did. More importantly, the dispensary was still open.

There were total losers in both the doper and juicer camps, as well as in our neutral group. The draft was reaching the dregs of society at this point. There were, of course, exceptions. But, out of 24 men in my section, I was the only one who read in his free time. I may have been the only one who could read. I wasn’t always sure. I was, therefore, the only enlisted man who got the joke when I painted M&M Enterprises on the front of my truck. Most of the officers didn’t get it either. Those who did befriended me. It was sort of a Rorschach test for compatibility.

Then there was Travis. He was skinny, with droopy eyes and jowls. He sort of looked like the dog in the Tex Avery cartoons. He tried to be a juicer, but even they barely tolerated him, mostly for his Southern accent and his massive collection of Johnny Cash tapes. Travis was always fucking up. Like the time he was trying to fix a telephone line to the NCO hooch. He didn’t bother to tape his line splice and then dropped it over a 220-volt power line, where it proceeded to short out. I was the first one in camp to learn about his mistake when the switchboard I was manning lit up like a Christmas tree. Every light and buzzer was going off like a psychedelic freak show.

“Hatchet, sir!” I yelled into the headset. But no one was there on any of the lines. Smoke started pouring out the back of the board. “Fire!” I yelled. I grabbed an extinguisher and let loose. The $50,000 switchboard was fried, but I saved the commo shack from burning down. They gave me a commendation medal for my quick thinking. Travis came dragging in, muttering about how anybody expected him to fix a phone when the operator wouldn’t answer the phone. It took us three days to install a new switchboard.

Travis couldn’t figure out what everyone was so mad about. “I was just trying to make it easier for y’all to get aholt of me,” he said. “You’d think no one ever burned up a switchboard before.”

Chapter 4→