Wayward Son, Chapter 9

All Along the Watchtower

I stood at the urinal, penis in one hand, specimen cup in the other. It was hot, but I was hotter from the embarrassment. The PFC who literally had a ringside seat to my dilemma finally spoke up.

“Can’t go?”

“I need to,” I answered. I really did. I had downed three cokes prior to entering The Peehouse of the August Moon “But I just can’t go when someone is watching.”

“Don’t worry. It happens. Come back at four.”

I had a shy bladder. Courtesy of three girls giggling at their first sight of a penis. I was eleven and hadn’t closed the bathroom door. They laughed for what seemed like hours.

I gave him the cup back and walked out. I found an empty latrine and released my aching bladder. How stupid. The final barrier between me and home was a clean urine test. My urine was drug free but I couldn’t prove it by army standards, which included someone staring at the source of the stream. The last month of my tour had been hell for many reasons. This was just one more obstacle. There was the clearing of the Iron Triangle part 2, the pre-election riots, the election night massacre, and the ever present lifers of the green machine. All seemed designed to drive me nuts. Alpha Battery’s dead courier was constantly on my mind. It didn’t help to hear similar stories from other troops. It seemed that every casualty mentioned had died in their first or last month in country.

The students, the communist sympathizers, and Buddhists first demonstrated, then rioted against the election of Thieu as president. Given his subsequent corruption and capitulation of the country, the rioters could hardly be blamed. Nonetheless, their tactic of overturning trucks full of GIs and setting the trucks on fire scared the shit out of me as my DEROS (departure date) approached. My last guard duty came six days before leaving my unit for processing home. It was the night before the election and we were on full alert. Naturally, I pulled a newbie for a partner. He looked contemptuously at my tightly laced flak jacket and steel pot. I was hot, but I wasn’t taking off any of my gear. Nor would I sleep that night. We got hit at midnight. All hell broke loose on our southern perimeter. My luck held however. Our tower was on the northern side. The newbie I shared the tower with was disappointed. He sat on the sandbags, smoking cigarettes, wishing for some action on our side of the camp. I hid behind the sandbags and told him to tell me if he saw anything. I checked our wire occasionally since he was engrossed in the battle and I didn’t trust him anyway. We watched four choppers go down. Months later, I learned that we suffered 60 casualties, 12 of them KIAs. The NVA had hit a weak spot in the wire near the medical dispensary. They lost over 100 dead and never crossed the wire.

I understood the rookie’s need for excitement. I thought about all the things I had done to stay awake through at least a hundred guard duties in my year-long tour. Once I popped a flare for the hell of it. The Sergeant of the Guard came up with a Duster which twin forty mm cannons mounted on a track. I told him we thought we had seen something moving in the tall grass. He turned on the spotlight and was ready to cut loose when a scrawny dog appeared. “Good work, soldier,” he told me. He commended me up for my keen eyesight. A similar incident by another bored GI at Fire Base Blue resulted in the destruction of a tiger. Dusters shot the equivalent of 440 grenades a minute. The tiger didn’t stand a chance.

I took tape recorded letters from home and from my girlfriend with me on duty, until I missed hearing the SOG sneaking up on me and got an article 15. Besides, it was too surreal, staring into the wire and claymore mines while listening to sweet words of love from home. Food was another biggie. C-rations were popular as long as they weren’t the only meal source. We heated them with plastic explosive dug out of a claymore mine. We also rigged stoves out of gasoline and a coke can. It was dangerous but heating and eating C-rats could take up an hour or more of guard duty. And the food helped fool our bodies into staying awake. I survived the pre-election night fire fight. The official press release recounted “isolated incidents of violence”, with no American casualties. Typical disconnect between media and reality.

The end of my tour came quickly, as it had for most of my friends. Cooper had eight hours’ notice of a family emergency that sent him home three months early. Lt. Johnson and Thomas were asked to take early outs due to fraternization with us enlisted men. Jenkins fell off a telephone pole and got shipped home to recover. Only John remained, and he was a double digit midget. I wandered around the DEROS center for a week trying to pass my pee test. I wasn’t the only one trying, but I was the only one with clean urine. A lot of junkies filled up on beer before their tests. They’d pee before getting in line so that when they got to the urinal their urine was almost clear. The army didn’t accept samples that were too watery so they’d have to come back the next day. Eventually they ran out of dope and turned themselves in for detox.

I went back to the test center at 16:00. The PFC took me to an isolated spot, patted me down for a urine stash and let me have some privacy. I was finally able to give the army what it wanted: clean warm piss. I had to pass two more such tests to get out of the country. Fortunately, the next two were done in private. We began to suspect that urine was the basis of some new kind of jet fuel. After all the paperwork, we got searched again. Our clothes, suitcases, and bodies. The army had had so much bad publicity about drugs they wanted to make sure no heroin or pot went home with us. Dogs sniffed us and our baggage. But we finally loaded the plane, taxied and took off. A cheer erupted on the airplane. We were homeward bound at last.