363 Days in Vietnam, Part 2

[Our first installment from Michael’s book, 363 Days in Vietnam, appeared in Copper # 84—Ed.]

Day 119

This photo of me pointing a gun at the camera has a lot to tell.

A towel fastened around the waist with some of the most awesome flip flops was NOT in the military dress code UNLESS the G.I. was in a warm combat zone and about to take or had just taken a shower. In this case it was the latter.

In 1968 there were zero women in combat in Vietnam or anywhere in the U.S. Military. Wearing only a towel was NOT provocative on a base exclusively staffed by men. In my one-year tour of duty I saw exactly 2 American women – they were Red Cross gals and it also involved a shower, but that’s another story for later . . .

You’ll notice a five-gallon gas can to my left. Modern plumbing did not exist for the Army in Vietnam. I imagine – but don’t really know – the Navy or Air Force may have had running water, but we never did.

When we wanted to shower, we needed to fill the can, carry it to the shower, carry the can up a ladder and pour it into the cut-off 55-gallon drum that sat above the shower. Five gallons would produce water for about 5 minutes.

If you wanted a shower that lasted more than 5 minutes, you could carry two five-gallon cans. I tried that once, but carrying two of those heavy cans exceeded my point of diminishing returns and I learned to ‘make do’ with one.

You’ll also note that my M16 accompanied me ‘cause Charlie, like Allen Funt, liked to show up when ‘you least expected him’.

Despite the fact that any Vietnamese person could and sometimes did turn out to be Viet Cong or a sympathizer, there were a few Vietnamese civilians working on our base. One of those was a young woman who I had seen previously hanging around.

So, I’ve returned from a refreshing shower at the end of a work day, I’ve got the water can in my right hand and the M16 in the other. I’m looking forward to a delicious meal at the mess hall (haha) and as I approach my hootch, she casually walks right up to me and snatches the towel. She’s looking me over and laughing as I snatch it back. Another G.I. had put her up to it.

I rewrap the towel around my waist and for reasons I don’t remember think: ‘this is a Fuji moment’. I ask if she’d take my photo. She’s still laughing as I fetch the camera from the other side of that screen door. She’s got a plastic flower in her hand and as I point the gun, she sticks it in the barrel (of the gun) like a stateside peacenik at a protest march. You can just make its pedals out.

Ordinarily, I would not point my rifle at someone. Ordinarily, I don’t carry a rifle and ordinarily, the person I’m pointing it at wouldn’t stick a plastic flower in the barrel, but there’s nothing ordinary about this moment and you see the result.

Day 124

One of our 105’s was firing when I wandered by their pit in a moment of boredom and decided to watch this afternoon. The guy calling the shots (pun intended) was one of the guys passing the peace pipe in my visit to the hangout bunker a couple of nights ago: Sergeant (I’m pretty sure his name was) Don.

At some point Sergeant Don noticed me sitting there and I asked if I could pull the lanyard. He nodded and I may have pushed the other guy out of the way after leaping from my perch on the pit wall en route to the gun.

They were setting defensive targets at the time, not a real fire mission so amateurs were welcome to participate.

Defensive Targets, aka ‘Delta Tango’s’ were typically set by infantry patrols (in the field) before it got dark so they’d be ready if Charlie tried to swoop in under the cover of darkness. They’d identify places where he’d be likely to hide and zero in on them while it was light. Then, if he did attack after dark, they’d simply call in ‘Target Beta’. That target would already be dialed in and high explosives would be on the target in under 60 seconds.

Now I’ve got the lanyard in my grasp – I am pumped! Don makes eye contact and gives the command: “Fire.” I am only too happy to comply.

B O O M !

THAT WAS FUN!

I’m not used to having fun here. I’m pretty sure that was the first fun I’ve had since getting here.

They make some adjustments, reload and Don gives the command again: “Fire.”

Okay, I admit, I’m not thinking about the destruction this could cause – I’m thinking how cool it is to pull the trigger on this beast.

More adjustments and another BLAST!

A few more pulls and we’re done – the targets are set and I’ve got a new way to pass the time in the afternoons. Hoo-Ahh!

Day 220

I’m on my own for day number three of R&R. I perused the hotel’s little collection of travel brochures for suggestions of things to see. The Botanic Gardens looked interesting.

It was mid-morning when I arrived and the big park was all but empty. I’m thinking ‘great’ I’ve got the place to myself. As I’m going through the turn-style somebody suggested I might want to feed the chimpanzees. They were selling bags of peanuts in the shell for a buck and I thought, ‘sounds like fun’.

It turns out the chimps were not in cages or behind fences – they were allowed to run free throughout the park. Well, that’s ‘different’, I thought.

Sure enough, I get about 200 feet into the park and there’s a small band of about six chimps trotting towards me. Great!

As they approached I thought I’d feed them from my hand. I hadn’t received any instruction or caution regarding their ‘feeding’ so I thought ‘why not’? I held out a single peanut in the palm of my right hand while clutching the bag near my chest with the left as the group’s leader got closer.

He got within about 6 feet and suddenly, with zero hesitation, like a lightning strike, he lunged at me, deftly snatched the bag of peanuts from my left hand and raced away with the other chimps chattering their gleeful approval.

For the split second he was lunging at me I couldn’t believe what was happening – I was totally taken off guard. By the time I reacted it was over. I chased after them and naturally, that was useless. It seemed as though no one had witnessed me getting outsmarted by an inferior species.

I guess I should be thankful the only thing they injured was my pride.

Day 237

Boring is where lazy intersects the unimaginative. Unboring isn’t complicated, it just requires a little ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking. The sign above the entrance to our hootch was boring, ‘mil-spec’ dreck and I decided to do something about it. By then I had forgotten the ‘awning incident’.

Before enlisting I had studied a little calligraphy – Mrs. Zahler set that ball in motion in 7th grade at Central Middle School. Naturally, we had learned how to print in first grade, but Zahler taught us the proper proportions of each letter and helped us/me to appreciate the importance of a uniform style.

My dad valued fine penmanship and loved the elaborate, Old English typeface. He had introduced it to me long ago and produced a signpost with our family name in Old English. Then, a couple months before getting on the bus to basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood, I met a guy who taught me how calligraphy was done with pen and ink. I bought a book of typefaces and a set of pens and had learned how to use them.

I took down the signboard above our hootches’ door with glee, covered it with a bright, red enamel and painted my old English ‘D’ in contrasting white ‘free hand’. Then, I added the decorative, psychedelic filigree, ‘elta’ to its center and the word ‘supply’ underneath.

When I renailed it above the door, it was a thing of beauty.

Take that conformity! Boring no more!

[We’ll have another installment from Michael’s book, 363 Days in Vietnam, in the next issue of Copper. You can see the book on Amazon, here.—Ed.]