Wayward Son: Chapter 2
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
As we began our descent into Bien Hoa Air Base, darkness was settling over the Vietnamese countryside. We came in fast and high to discourage anti-aircraft fire. There was black smoke rising from dozens of fires as I looked out of the window. Each air-pocket bump and plume of smoke made me want to say a prayer for the dead bodies and broken vehicles I was sure they marked. It was several weeks before I discovered that all of the fires were from papa-sans burning GI shit. Shit burning was only one reason why the Vietnamese thought the Americans were crazy. We took perfectly good fertilizer that made Vietnam the world’s greatest rice producer, perfectly good diesel fuel that cost a family a month’s salary, mixed them together and then set them on fire. On top of all that, because the job was so despised by GIs, the army paid the highest wages to the Vietnamese civilians to do the dirty deed. Our own shitburner was a retired ARVN major. He had paid a stiff bribe to get the shit burning job. He was held in high regard by the rest of the workers.
It was dark when we got off the plane. Obnoxious soldiers threw baggage out of the plane while giving a running commentary on the sorry state of us newbies and speculating on which one of us was their replacements. It was only upon my DEROS that I discovered that baggage handling was punishment for short-timers who couldn’t pass their urine tests. The heat and humidity took your breath away. I had thought that training in Oklahoma in August would have prepared me. It didn’t. Nam was worse. I didn’t breathe properly for a whole year. The bus ride was awful. RPG screen (chain link fencing to explode grenades before they entered the bus) on the windows. Houses without sides. We drove by people fucking in the bed while the rest of the family sat around watching TV. The first night was miserable. There were no fans, mosquito nets, or repellent and we were eaten alive by the bugs.
I was in a foul mood when I hit the replacement center for orders. My MOS was 31B30 – radio/gunnery computer repair. It was a critical job. Every artillery unit desperately needed one. But the replacement center only had listings for 31B20 – radio repairman – something every unit needed. They tried to send me to a helicopter unit.
“Bullshit,” I said. “I have an artillery MOS, so send me to artillery. Our whole class was shipped to Vietnam because of this shortage.” They couldn’t believe I was arguing with them and tried to talk me out of it. But I was in no mood to budge. They eventually found a unit requesting my MOS and sent me to it. I found out later that none of the rest of my class ended up in artillery. Most had cushy jobs in Saigon. But, in retrospect, I was right on this one. And the double rainbow in the sky that night reassured me. Even a broken clock is right every once in a while.
The artillery unit’s headquarters, Camp Jones, was a little dump with a “Welcome to Dodge City” sign. Seems some GIs had shot up the EM club recently during a racial squabble. It wasn’t the only time I encountered friendly fire. I got shot at by my own troops almost more than I did by the V.C. The camp’s main claim to fame was a swimming pool left by the French. When the hot water heater for the showers was broken, a frequent occurrence, we all hit the pool to cool down and clean off. The supply room was run by a surly short-timer. I saw my first Penthouse pin-up with the music label, “American Woman” as he threw me my field gear. Music, and all forms of pop culture, was very important over there. Comic books were especially prized. A comment on the declining intellectual capacity of the draft pool. The latest Spiderman could provoke a possession fight much faster than a pin-up magazine. And fights over turning down obnoxious music (defined as anything you didn’t like) were common. The shootout in the EM club, complete with GIs diving under tables for cover, was essentially over a disagreement about the virtues of Motown over the Grand Old Opry. I was greeted with open arms by my Communications Officer, Capt. Brown, and the section chief, Sgt. Keith. We called him Charlie Brown because he looked like a comic strip character with glasses and made about as much sense, and Sergeant Keith, a redhead who was firmly in the Johnny Cash and Jack Daniels camp, were both glad to see me. At my first meal, I was surveyed at the door by a tall, scraggly spec 4.
“Are you a head or a juicer?” he asked.
“Neither,” I answered.
“We gotta put you down for something. What music do you like, Merle Haggard or Jimi Hendricks?”
“Jimi,” I said.
“We’ll put you down as a head.”
It was an omen for my tour. For me, Vietnam wasn’t a fight between capitalism and communism. It was between beer and pot, black and white, country music and acid rock, and heroin and drug tests. The results of the survey were 40% heads and 60% juicers. In reality, about 10-15% of enlisted men and NCO’s stayed clean and sober. The rest were evenly split between druggies and drunks.
Sgt. Keith had been trying to run a comm center with just wiremen, people trained to climb telephone poles without falling. It was a mess. I began the clean-up and organization. It took a month but I had every radio and computer up and running and the back-ups squared away. Spare parts were available and easily found. It was then that I made my first real friend.
“What’s wrong with the communications in this Battalion?” the battalion Commander asked me. “I’m tired of us being off the air.” He was a thin man with sparse curly hair. He reminded me of a Dickens character. I knew it was a big deal that he sought out my opinion because he had left his air-conditioned trailer complete with housemaid/cook to ask.
“Generators,”I told him. “We need a generator mechanic to keep the generators running so there’s to keep power to the equipment.”
I had solved all of the electronic problems. It was all power issues. We actually had a generator mechanic in the unit, but due to an unfortunate sleeping incident on guard duty, he was cleaning oil pans on 5 ton diesels. My request rescued him and he became my good buddy thereafter. My first guard duty (second night there) was scary – a bunker on the flight line. A prime target, complete with gasoline storage. Worse yet, I was alone because my partner was a tow truck driver who was still out on a run. When Pinky finally showed up, it turned out to be his first guard duty too. It took us twenty minutes to load the machine gun in the dark. Being new, we didn’t have the illegal food, drink, or radios that veterans used to make guard duty bearable. Worse yet, the cockroaches and rats were pissed at us for not bringing any goodies. It was not the only time I did combat with rats and Asian cockroaches.
My second week in country, I got sent to the field. Fire Base Nancy. I was dead-tired from guard duty every two or three nights and the eight hour road trip to the fire base. I got their gunnery computer and radio problems straightened out and then tried to sleep on a pile of empty sand bags inside a gun pit. Worse yet, we were on alert that night, so the BC (Battery Commander) let the whores in the compound as an incentive to stay awake. The whore tent was right next to my gun pit. I don’t know who made more noise that night, the 155 artillery rounds or the dozens of GIs who frequented the tent all night. One enterprising newbie who hadn’t been paid yet swapped his high school ring for as many trips through the line as he could get. I finally fell asleep after his fifth go-round. The drive back was just as long and nerve-wracking. I was so full of adrenaline that I violated my survey answer and went to the EM club to unwind that night. Mixed drinks were 15 cents a shot. We had a contest to see who could stack up the most plastic cups that the drinks were served in. I was up to 13 when the CQ runner came in and got me.
“Report to the Sergeant of the Guard,” he said. I staggered toward the duty hut alongside the runner.
“The radio in the spotting tower is out,” I was told.
“The repair shop is closed,” I said. “I’m off duty. Use carrier pigeons and call me in the morning.”
“This is war, son. You’re never off duty,” the SOG told me.
“How am I supposed to get all the way up into that tower in my condition?”
“You’ll figure it out,” he answered.
Herded by the CQ runner, I found the 100 foot tower. A confirmed hater of heights, I made many rash promises to god as I climbed. It turned out that the radio needed a new battery. I replaced it, threw up over the side, and climbed back down. It wasn’t my last encounter with that tower. Now that I understood that I was on call 24/7, I swore off drinking for the rest of my tour. It was a decision which got me into a great deal of trouble with the juicers later. But I survived my fears and my first month. I had a fan to fight the mosquitoes, I had learned how to nap when it was my turn on guard duty, and all of my clothes and boots were impregnated with the ever present red dust. I was a newbie no longer.