Wayward Son: Chapter 5
Thanks, Bob, wherever you are.
“Where in the hell is your hat soldier?” The colonel demanded. I did a slow burn as I pulled my hat out of my pocket and put it on. I knew better than to expect a thank you from the grey-haired, crew-cut, skinny officer standing in front of me. But I didn’t expect an ass reaming either. After all, I was doing him a favor that was against army regulations. First of all, Fire Support Base Dachus was in Cambodia, even though President Nixon denied that we were still there. This idiot thought I was too dumb to use the chopper’s compass, airspeed indicator, and my watch to know where we actually were. I had just spent four hours in a 110 degree bunker coaxing his dilapidated computer into accepting a new program and fire data. Secondly, it was a job I wasn’t authorized to do. Regulations said that his computer should have been flown back to the rear where it would have stayed for a month if it could have been fixed at all. I was surrounded by his troops who were shirtless, hatless, and in mud-splattered boots. But this lifer was hassling me about not wearing a hat. What he was really doing was reasserting his importance.
A military that was increasingly dependent on technology was also dependent on its technicians. And people like me, who were smart enough to keep sophisticated equipment working, were not willing to be treated like interchangeable pieces of cannon fodder. A week later, his computer quit working and he requested my services again. I told him I wasn’t authorized to make those repairs and he needed to send his machine to depot maintenance. He became angry and yelled at me about how his troops needed that machine. I hung up in the middle of his rant. I heard that he tried to pressure my BC into sending me back to Cambodia without any luck. Live by the reg, die by the reg.
The lifers were one of the worst parts of being in country. Field duty was usually a pleasure because you got away from them. Notice I distinguish between career soldiers and lifers. Career soldiers loved their country and still recognized that the war was a major mistake. Lifers only cared about their careers. Lifers often didn’t last long in the field. If the enemy didn’t get them, their own troops would. Lifers fucked up our lives in ways both big and small. Beer, for example. They liked ‘50s style beers that came in steel cans that rusted from sitting in the hot sun, waiting to be drunk. The fact that everyone back “in the real world” drank beer from an aluminum can never crossed the lifers’ minds. And they were so pleased to provide a TV for the troops. The shows included “Bonanza” and “Combat,” just what we all wanted to watch. So the TV was never on. Lifers were forever thinking up ways to further their careers. They didn’t care who got hurt in the process. They only thought about how to generate their next promotion.
One day, Charlie Brown, our communications section chief, called us into his office. He wanted us to set up a Tactical Operations Center for a two week training exercise in the middle of an unguarded rice paddy 20 kilometers from any ground support. What made this idea even more ludicrous is that the equipment he wanted to test ($2 million worth) had just returned from three months in the field of actual use as a forward TOC. Even the other lifers in the unit didn’t buy that one. Everyone in the section requested a transfer. The BC squelched the whole idea. Charlie Brown suspected me of inciting the rebellion and paid me back at a later date. What really drove the lifers crazy (as well as many Southern rednecks and Northern white trash) were the blacks in the unit. Black soldiers were hip to Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and Mohammed Ali’s jail sentence. They considered Vietnam a white man’s war designed to kill off minority males. They showed their solidarity with an elaborate series of physical greetings they called DAP. I never did find out what DAP stood for. One black soldier, Sp/4 Jenkins, quit hanging around other blacks because he got tired of the whole three-minute ritual.
“I couldn’t get into the mess hall without giving DAP to everyone at least twice. I was gonna starve,” he told us.
There was a lot of racial tension, partly because of the dim view the lifers and rednecks took of this “nonsense.” Basically, anybody who was white, drank, or was over the rank of E-5 became suspect as far as most minorities were concerned. One night, I had guard duty with the PLL clerk, an easygoing black man named Max. Within an hour, though, five of his friends climbed into the tower and started smoking dope. The higher they got, the more insulting they became toward whites in general and me in particular. They decided that because I wore glasses, I was an inferior human and they should throw me off the tower. I chambered a round in my M16, flipped the switch to full auto, and aimed it in their direction. I’d have killed them all. They knew it, and so did I. For the next three hours, it was a stand-off. They tried to bait me with insults and stupid questions. I stayed silent and kept my rifle trained on them until they decided to go back to their hooch to nod off.
Other whites weren’t so lucky. My hooch was next to the NCOs’, a common target. I got tear-gassed more times than I can remember. One night, a black junkie decided to blow up the sergeant major (whom everybody agreed was an asshole) with a grenade. Unfortunately, he was high at the time and wounded our new first sergeant instead. The explosion threw shrapnel into the sandbags outside my room and tore the mosquito netting on my window. Scared the shit out of me. Almost as bad was the time a lifer got depressed over losing his Vietnamese girlfriend (she wanted to get married, and he had neglected to tell her about his wife back in the world). So he went through the huts shooting randomly before killing himself. Fortunately, he was so drunk at the time, the only person he managed to hit was himself. Nobody cared. It wasn’t that some of the lifers didn’t try to relate to us as human beings. It’s just that army training had discouraged such behavior for a long time; they didn’t know how to change. Pecking order was determined by rank. Not by your job or its importance.
One time, we got a lumber shipment. Everyone went nuts using the wood to divide the big hooch into individual rooms. But every week, a new regulation was announced trying to make all rooms uniform in size and construction. We had to tear the rooms down and rebuild four times before all the lifers were satisfied. There were actually times when I felt sorry for them. They had given their life to the army, and it was falling apart and they couldn’t figure out why. We had one E-7 who was a dead ringer for Buddy Ebsen. His son transferred to our unit. He was prouder than hell until he found out his son was a full-blown junkie. The discovery shattered him and ended his career. Lifers knew that the military of their youth was gone. In spite of different musical tastes from the draftees, they knew the words to the most requested song at the club: “We gotta get outta this place.” They knew the war sucked, the army was broken, and they didn’t know what to do. They were stuck on a Kansas highway in a summer hailstorm with no shelter.
The only time I had ever really connected with the lifers was at a Bob Hope Christmas concert in Long Bien. We had to hitchhike to get there. We arrived at 9:00 a.m. and sat in the sun until the show started four hours late. Medics who had brought the wounded threw ice into the crowd because there was no water, shade, food, or bathroom facilities. There were thousands of us, and it was a long wait. But Bob Hope actually made it worthwhile. He was a master at working such a large crowd. For a while, without drugs or alcohol, we forgot where we were. All of us, Army, Navy, Air Force, draftees, and lifers sang “Silent Night” together and wept. I never expected Christmas to find me in such a place. But it did. Thanks, Bob. Wherever you are.