Wayward Son: Chapter 4

I Just Dropped In

vn truck

“Just the man I wanted to see,” Sgt. Keith said. “You and Tony have Donut Dollie duty.”

“Jesus Christ, Sarge, I had it last time they were here,” I said, in the hope that he would take pity on me.

“Bullshit. Last time they were here, only two newbies showed up. The BC caught hell from USARV over our lack of support of the Red Cross’s finest. Every section has to have two representatives so the young ladies’ feelings won’t get hurt.”

Maybe early in the war, these Red Cross volunteers stirred the GIs’ hearts. But now, everyone knew it was a matter of time before we bugged out of Vietnam, and the ARVN soldiers wouldn’t last long without us. Maybe if the girls would just sit and really talk to us like they would to guys at a dance or church social at home, things would be different. Of course, church socials didn’t have society’s discarded and dispossessed underclasss trying to fondle the women, either. So I didn’t really blame them for wanting to keep us at arm’s distance. Rumor was that these dollies were for sale at rear echelon officer’s clubs. But I didn’t believe it myself. Maybe some did make some extra money on the side, but mostly I think they were scared of us. Sometimes, I was scared of us too.

Maybe if they ever brought real donuts to go with the industrial strength coffee, we would have been more enthusiastic about seeing them. But they didn’t. Just endless games of twenty questions, a game I had trouble with. It’s not that I lack the intelligence for the game. It’s just that I could never keep the categories straight while I was in country. Take animals for instance. They would want us to guess an animal like a horse or a sheep. But that’s not the animals we had become so familiar with. The most prominent members of the animal kingdom in Vietnam were the insects. Any entomologist worth his salt could discover a dozen new species just by spending his evening on guard duty. And even the known species were in need of study. The flying Asian cockroach was a good example. Big, ugly, and mean. I never feared cockroaches until Vietnam. But, after you have almost fallen out of a 25-foot guard tower at 2 a.m. because a cockroach the size of a Coke can has bitten you on the neck, convincing you that a VC is slitting your throat, you get a little paranoid. Roach killing was a popular sport. A potato chip was dropped on the floor as bait. Then two specimens would be sprayed with insecticide. Bets were taken on which would die first. See what I mean?  Insecticides are minerals. I’m in the wrong category.

I try again to stay with insects. We had lights on our towers. Columns of insects a hundred feet high gathered around them every night. They were thirty foot tall chitinous tornadoes. There were so many bugs you couldn’t see the enemy trying to sneak through the wire. The bats that swooped down through the clouds of bugs got so stuffed in an hour that they had to take a bus back to their cave. One night, in bat tower (so named due to an unfortunate collision between an insect-drunk bat and a G.I.), I got clobbered in the chest by a flying 5-inch rhinoceros beetle. It was like getting hit with a Jack Nicklaus tee shot. I thought it was a sniper round at first. It knocked me down and left a hole in my sternum but I was so grateful that it wasn’t a bat bite requiring rabies shots that I didn’t care. The mosquitoes were the worst. Every morning after guard duty, my eyes and lips were so swollen from bites that I couldn’t see or talk. The only respite was in my bed with a fan on full blast and a mosquito net for protection. And every two weeks, the Air Force flew over and sprayed us with the surplus DDT which was illegal to use in the U.S. So naturally, the chemical companies had sold all of their stock to the government at an inflated price. We hated it worse than the mosquitoes. Everything tasted and smelled of DDT for days.

And here I am back to minerals again. One night, a VC sapper hit team hit the DDT dump thinking it was jet fuel. Ten thousand barrels of DDT went up in smoke. It took weeks for all of it to burn. After that, the Air Force quit spraying us. We thought the VC deserved a medal instead of getting killed. But, see how far I’ve strayed from the category of animals? And if I started with minerals, I had to consider the white phosphorus shells and red tracer rounds which look so damn pretty you forgot about their purpose. When a really good firefight got going and the Cobra gunships started working out, their fire hit the ground and scattered everywhere. It looked like a cow pissing blood on a flat rock. And cows would remind me of Vietnamese peasants who were always trying to sell pets to the G.I.s. There was Hubert, the guard duck who kept his owner from ever getting caught sleeping on guard duty. And Francis, a nasty little monkey who hung himself during a fit by wrapping his leash around a mosquito net pole. Nobody would take the risk of getting bit to try to save him. And then there was Boom Boom, the camp mascot. He was the only dog on post that looked like he might be of American origin. Collie-colored, he was a great dog until one of the junkies got him strung out on smack. Then Boomer started digging up everybody’s stash until they cold-turkeyed him. He was never the same after his bout with the high life.

The locals love to have us take in dogs as pets. We’d feed them, get them fat and sassy, and the females got pregnant. Then around TET, all the puppies would disappear. Rumor was they were eaten. But I know better than to believe rumors. Besides which, I know a G.I. who traded a puppy for a bag of fresh fruit. There I go. From animals to food and then to fruit. Fruit reminded me of the bananas they served in the mess every day. Bananas immediately made me think of Major O’Donnell trying to get a bronze star his last week in country by sweeping a banana plantation with only a nervous 19-year-old driver for backup.

Categories got so mixed up, I couldn’t tell where I was. Take the time we were cleaning out the camp while moving to a new location. We uncovered an iguana that bit me the second I caught it. I knew it wasn’t poisonous, but I didn’t know what disease it could carry, so I trapped it in an empty first aid box and tossed it in the back of my truck amidst the water-damaged hymnals and other debris. Later, the medics assured me I could release it without worry. But, we were working 20 hour shifts and I forgot. Three days later, we stopped to buy some chum chums before entering Long Binh Army Base to pick up some sodas and less healthy snacks. Our stop outside the gate aroused the suspicion of the MP s who were looking to make drug busts. They stopped us and began searching us. One of my companions had a bottle of calamine lotion for mosquito bites. The sergeant tasted it to see if it was heroin. I don’t know if he knew what heroin tasted like, but it looked like he was doing his job. My friend and I started to laugh at his zeal.

“Shut up soldier,” he yelled at us. “We saw you buying dope and we’re gonna lock you up.”

I offered to let him taste the local fruit we had bought, but he declined. In the meantime, a tall skinny private was bent over and rummaging through the junk occupying the bottom of my truck. He found the metal first aid box with the iguana in it. The lizard had been in there for three days in the hot sun without food and water. And he had been aggressive to start with. Now the reptile was really pissed.

“Don’t open that,” I hollered.

The sergeant grinned. “Open it,” he ordered.

“I wouldn’t if I were you,” I said.

The private opened the box. The lizard jumped up, snarling, tail lashing. He did a 360 and dove at the hapless private who was screaming, “Rat!” We fell down laughing as the private hollered, danced, and fell backwards over the tailgate. No one blamed him for being paranoid about rats. Vietnamese rats were big and bold. I once stayed up most of the night to catch the rats that ruined two large bags of candy that I had gotten from home. It took three soap rounds to drop one of those suckers. See how far away from the vegetable category I’ve gotten? No matter what category I started with, I couldn’t stick with it. I looked stupid in front of the girls, and I left hungry and frustrated. All in all, I suppose an afternoon with the Donut Dollies was better than one with a dentist, but at least the dentist gives you a toothbrush for your trouble.

Chapter 5→

dog and rat