363 Days in Vietnam, Part 3

Written by Michael Baskin

[Previous installments from Michael’s book, 363 Days in Vietnam, appeared in Copper # 84 and #85Ed.]

Day 244

A home-made recording of a new rock band arrived today from my girlfriend (and future wife) – the group called themselves ‘Led Zeppelin’ which seemed like an obvious attempt to ride ‘Iron Butterfly’s coattails. She had made the tape using a portable (cassette) recorder by holding a cheap microphone up to the loudspeakers as the LP played on her friend’s turntable.

I was happy to receive anything from her – it didn’t happen often enough. She was fairly excited about these guys and their music in the letter that accompanied the tape. It named Jimmy Page as the guitarist and leader.

I was skeptical about a band I’d never heard of even if Page (who I’d seen LIVE with the Yardbirds) was in it. I had a little portable cassette player, too and I listened to the tape immediately.

In spite of just about the lowest fidelity possible I was captivated by what I heard. They had me with the first two notes. This was radically new music. A blend of raw blues, distorted power chords and psychedelics unlike anything I’d heard before – darker and more powerful than Cream. I listened to the recording all the way through, reread the letter and listened to it again. It was stunning – a game-changer.

On one hand I was thrilled, but on the other I was upset. Music was on the move back in the real world – this could be the tip of the iceberg – and I was missing it. This album alone would take rock in a new direction and I wouldn’t be there to witness the new trend.

Day 260

. . . was a sunny, hot, April day. We received so much ammo it took two truck loads to get it all delivered. After we had finished, the water trailer still needed to be brought up and Harold had something else to do. No problem, I got this.

I drove down to the LZ, hooked the trailer to the truck and drove up the hill. I parked more or less where I’d seen Harold park and unhooked it. What I didn’t notice was Harold always set the brakes on the trailer before unhooking it from the truck. I was parked on a slight incline and the trailer immediately started to roll backwards.

There is no stopping a fully-loaded, 400-gallon trailer rolling down hill and I/we were very fortunate no one was in its path, but that’s as much luck as I had that day.

It quickly picked up speed following the downward curvature of the gully and flipped over at the bottom. In spite of being sealed, the water gushed out its top.

It wasn’t a total loss, but what water remained would need to be used for drinking and cooking – no showers that night.

Once again my journalistic instincts inspired me to photograph the incident which seems odd 50+ years later. Naturally, I was embarrassed over the mistake and yet, as you can see I didn’t feel the need to participate in righting the trailer. I guess I figured there were enough other guys already taking care of that and besides, I seriously wanted to disappear.

I didn’t make that mistake again.

Day 297

On this day Delta Battery got temporarily split in half – the half I was assigned to was going on a mission to a place called Tra Bong five miles inland. We would coordinate with a battery of 175MM guns that were already there. Tra Bong was home to the Montagnard (a French word that we pronounced: ‘mountain yard’), the indigenous peoples of the Central Vietnamese Highlands.

We choppered three guns with their crews and got there in the early afternoon and thought: ‘now what?’ There were no bunkers and no gun emplacements, just a football-sized plot of sandy soil in between a small river and a primitive village of crude, bronze-age huts.

The officer in charge instructed each of us to start digging a trench big enough for a cot. There was a stack of large, corrugated semi-culverts and we were going to use those as roofs for our trenches once our cots were fitted inside.

Our digging tool was the standard, folding Army entrenching tool – not a proper spade. Ugh. It was hard work but there was no choice about it.

My new hole, er, trench was about 150 feet from a 175MM howitzer and its crew which was already in place and shooting missions. This was the first 175 I’d ever seen in action and I thought my ears might never be the same – loud does not describe it. Our 105’s were loud, the 175 seemed to be three-times louder.

As I’m digging I notice a weathered-looking Vietnamese guy has started plowing the field in between us and the village. It’s like a photo out of an old National Geographic. He’s strapped to a water buffalo as it pulls a crude, wooden plow about 200 feet from me. We were instructed to leave anything nonessential at LZ Buff, so I didn’t bring my camera and don’t have any photos.

A short time later, his wife (I presume) brought him some water. Nothing unusual about that except she’s only wearing a ground-length skirt and sandals. Come to find out, tops are optional for Montagnard women when it’s warm.

As the Banded Bay Cuckoo flies, we’re only about 20 miles from Chu Lai but it’s as if we’ve gone through some kind of time-warp portal. I’m wondering: how is it LIFE Magazine, National Geographic or Playboy never mentioned our G.I.’s encountering these primitive people with their topless women?

After my distraction returned to her village, I got back to the matter at hand: digging. Eventually, the trench is big and deep enough for my cot. I got help placing a couple culverts over it leaving enough clearance to crawl inside. Then, I filled a few sand bags to cover the culverts. My new home away from home away from home wasn’t much, but it would have to do.

And if it wasn’t for that damned 175MM gun firing every few hours, I would have gotten a pretty good night’s sleep – I was hoping to dream about Montagnard women, but no such luck.

[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.]

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