Wayward Son, Chapter 6
“Don’t cuss at it so much. You’ll never fix it that way.”
“What the fuck do you know,” I said. I didn’t bother to look over my shoulder. It was hot in the bunker, and I had already spent three and a half hours trying to reprogram Freddy FADAC, the gunnery computer.
“Maybe you should take a break and calm down,” the voice said.
“The only thing that’s gonna break around here is this piece of shit that I’m going to trade for an abacus.” I slammed the manual on top of the computer.
“Now go find someone else to bother and leave me alone.”
The computer operator gave me a discreet nudge. I looked up. It was a first lieutenant. I didn’t recognize him, so I didn’t worry about my indiscreet remarks. I had already learned how to use my technical expertise when dealing with officers. I once chewed out a first lieutenant for 15 minutes. and the BC made him stand there and take it. I was the only one who could maintain $5 million worth of the electronic hardware that was the key to the success or failure of our fire missions. I picked up a wrench and pointed at the computer.
“Start cooperating, you mother fucker, or I’ll take your hard drive out and scrub it with sandpaper.” I don’t know what made FADACs such ornery machines. Better men than I swore that they had a mind of their own. A second-generation computer, it was modularized with pull-out transistorized circuitry that was prone to electrical gremlins that requires the same sort of treatment once prescribed for army mules. Modern solid-state IC equipment never displayed the same individuality. I restarted the program and held my breath. This time it took. I started picking up my tools.
“Do you always talk like that?” asked the young lieutenant.
“Only when I have to show it who’s boss.”
He held out his hand. “I’m Lt. Thomas,” he said. “I’m your new section chief. We came to pick you up and take you back to base.”
“Good,” I said, shaking his hand. Part of my trip to Fire Base Mary Jane (how the dopers slipped that name past the lifers, I’d never figure out) had been in a Lambretta with a pig and three mama-sans. I was happy to not have to repeat the experience.
“Watch it,” I said. The lieutenant quickly lifted his hand off the sandbags. Without a word, I poked a crack between the sandbags with my wrench. There was a hissing sound.
“Marvin the Mongoose,” I said. “He jumped the FDO (Fire Direction Officer) last night and bit him. Captain shot at him with his sidearm and now he’s in a nasty mood.”
“Who, Marvin or the captain?”
I laughed. “Both.”
Thus began my most important friendship in Vietnam. Not best, maybe, but most important. This skinny, gawky, ROTC officer from the University of Minnesota with the cheesy moustache was actually trying to help me when he thought I was having a fit over the balky computer. He helped me get by. Actually, it was more than that with him. He wanted to help make me a better person. It was not until many years later that I realized what he was trying to do. He understood that I wasted a lot of energy by approaching every difficulty in life as a personal battle to be won or lost. And I hated losing. I quickly learned that the LT was definitely not regular army. On the ride back to base, he popped off a few rounds into the bushes. It startled us enough to return what we thought was enemy fire. He laughed so hard that we figured out what he had done very quickly.
What so many of the GIs tried to achieve through smoking smack, pot, or drinking alcohol, we tried to get through friendship. In the middle of the sewer we lived in, we cultivated friendship, trust, and pride. It was hard. You could really care about someone only to have them get killed. Plus, the army rotated people instead of units. This meant there were people coming and going all the time. But, a core group of us formed who had some things in common. We didn’t like drugs or being drunk, and we were all scheduled to leave at about the same time. Lt. Johnson, another ROTC grad, joined our group. He was a huge, pear-shaped man whose uniform never fit quite right. He was the intelligence officer for the unit and was actually equipped for the job, something that seldom happens in the army. There was also John Welsh, my best friend and a surfer from California; he knew as much electronics as I did even though he was just a radio operator. We all wanted to enrich and preserve our humanity. We wanted to come out of the war better men than we were when we entered it. And we all would have said “Bullshit” if one of us had been brave enough to have said it at the time.
While others drank and smoked themselves into oblivion, we talked about college, what was happening to the Vietnamese, the latest books from the world, and where we wanted to be and what we wanted to do in the future. We played chess tournaments and designed better equipment to do our jobs. In the midst of the disintegration of a country, the collapse of the traditional army, and simmering racial tensions, we found brotherhood and support. The LTs stuck up for us, commandeered lobsters from the BC’s helicopter, snuck us into off-post restaurants, got us passes to the beach at Vung Tau, and scored temporary duty with Australian troops (who taught us 120 verses of Waltzing Matilda). In turn, we did whatever they asked. They never asked us to throw our lives away on a training mission in a worthless rice paddy. But we would have. And we did get involved in their undercover drug work, which was probably as dangerous as tackling the VC.
The sad thing is that circumstances and the army never let us continue those relationships and build upon them. But, as Lt. Thomas said after being reprimanded for hanging out with us instead of in the BC’s air conditioned trailer, “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.” Many years, and millions of dollars’ worth of studying later, the army finally acknowledged what we already knew. Men do not fight and die for a country’s flag or ideas. They do it for their friends. The people they care about. And the only leaders who are worth a damn are the ones who know that and build real relationships with their troops.