Thursday, March 21, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Three: Rolling Downhill

As I came to the end of my college career I really had no next step in mind, no responsible, hopefully profitable, move into adult life and into an adult job. The only thing I had really wanted to do was to have the RF Trio, a singing group I was a part of, to go off somewhere where we could continue to learn, improve, and, perhaps be discovered.

Portland was not that place. A comedian, who - along with a stripper named Tempest Storm - we had shared a two week engagement at the Ho Ti, Portland’s closest thing to a nightclub (it was previously Amato’s Supper Club, home of the Rhythm Room) had taken a liking to us, and thought we were pretty good. One of the two things he told us that we took as words to live by was that “the two worst weeks in show business are Christmas and Portland”. The other thing he told us was “don’t ever try to compete for an audience with dog acts or little children.”

The plan of record for our “grow and be discovered” venue had been to go to Dallas. Dave, one of the other two members of the Trio, had been in Dallas during his brief active duty tour in the National Guard. He had become grade deficient in college and was lucky to avoid the infantry by getting into the Air National Guard. He had a high opinion of Dallas as a venue for a young and striving act such as ours.

Before we were able to be on our way to Dallas, it had become November 22, 1963. We decided to let the Kennedy assassination cancel the Dallas plans. Those plans had probably never been anything but a pipe dream anyway.

The Dallas plans cancellation notwithstanding, the three of us should have been able to try to make a try at being in the entertainment business. Since I was about to graduate, as was Joe - the third member of the Trio – and since Dave was back in Portland after the Air Guard tour, it should have followed that the Trio, somewhere, Portland or not, could have become for us a full time endeavor.

That could have been true except for one fact.

The thing that had kept Joe and me in college and Dave in the National Guard hadn’t gone away. It had just changed names.

Originally it had been called Laos.

Then it had become Vietnam.

The typical young American male’s horror of being drafted and told to carry a gun for something other than hunting – although at that time I had never hunted anything except with a BB gun - had kept a lot of colleges full for several years. When I had entered college I had been sure that by the time I had graduated the crisis in South East Asia would have passed. I had assumed that I would have been able to get on with my life after college in whatever manner I might have chosen.

But the crisis had only changed names. If anything it had gotten worse. More and more young males were being drafted and told to carry guns for something other than hunting. It had been obvious as graduation from college drew nearer and nearer that some sort of evasive action was going to be required. It was also obvious that whatever that evasive action turned out to be it would preclude a lot of leeway in personal life choices.

So the Trio probably wasn’t going to happen.

The actual form of the evasive action that I ultimately took presented itself with surprising swiftness and clarity. It solved both of my problems. It would keep me out of the draft and supply me with a job for four years.

USAF was at Portland State actively recruiting candidates for OTS - Officer Training School. The test was imminent. I took the test. I was accepted. I got an induction date several months off. I graduated from college. I got married. I worked my regular summer job until I went to OTS. I graduated from OTS.

My first assignment was Headquarters Security Service at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo Texas. Due to the nature of the mission of the Security Service, the highest form of security clearance was required, so I was to be in “casual status” for a number of months. I became a part of a large group of other recent ROTC, Academy and OTS graduates at Goodfellow. We didn’t sit idle while we waited for our clearances. We played a lot of pool. We had long lunch hours at the Officers’ Club. We sat around and talked a lot. The sergeants – who actually ran things – treated us with respect as long as we didn’t get in their way.

And then after several months of this the Air Force for some reason decided to send all of us from the Security Service - from Goodfellow - off to Lowry AFB in Colorado. At Lowry we were to be trained to be Air Intelligence Officers, after which we were to be sent to various places overseas.

It would turn out that most of those various places overseas were in Vietnam.

So I spent six months at Lowry AFB. Then I graduated from Air Intelligence School. Then I got orders to Cannon AFB in Clovis New Mexico. Cannon turned out to be a holding tank for officers and enlisted men on their way to Vietnam. The F100 Tactical Fighter Wing resident at Cannon had been frequently a part of the early Vietnam War philosophy of 90 day temporary assignments. Under that implementation various stateside units were sent to fight the war for 90 days and then returned home for a period, and then sent back for another 90 day go at the enemy. That had been assumed to have been an everlasting cycle.

Just before I got assigned to Cannon somebody decided it would be better to have 12-month permanent assignments to Vietnam based units that could be continually repopulated by new 12-month blood from bases in the United States.

Vietnam had changed from a fun drive-in war to a 12-month slog of a war.

After 10 months at Cannon I got my orders to Vietnam. The good news was that before going to the war I got 30 days leave at home in Portland. So I could go duck hunting.

Then I got to go to Vietnam.

I got on the plane at Travis AFB after spending twelve hours at the bar in the Officers’ Club. It was pitch-dark. It was pitch-dark all the way across the Pacific and was pitch-dark as we landed at Clark AFB in the Philippines. Clark was a fuel stop, and we got out and went into the cafeteria. I didn’t eat anything. There were vast steam tables full of an indescribable gray-white lumpy viscous substance which I learned later was called SOS. If that was what the Air Force ate for breakfast while overseas, I knew I was really going to dislike being overseas.

It was dark when we took off from Clark and it was dark until we reached the coast of the Asian continent. There was a dark orange-coral color striping the ocean side of Vietnam as we flew down the coast to Saigon.

And then we were at Ton Son Nhut. All the passengers on the plane I had been on were gathered in a large room with one ceiling fan slowly turning. The room was engulfed in an almost otherworldly darkness and gloom. The darkness and gloom were competing for supremacy with what light was present.

It was kind of smoky.

I looked for Humphrey Bogart or Sidney Greenstreet.

There was a fairly junior enlisted man droning out a series of non-sequiturs and inanities. We all learned quickly that he was senior to all of us because he had an earlier DEROS – date of return from overseas. The specifics underpinning that fact he not very subtly imparted to us: he was going to escape before we did and that earlier escape date trumped rank.

The fact that within a few moments of being officially “in country” I had already learned from someone I didn’t know from Adam’s off ox, and who was substantially my junior in rank, that he actually outranked me because of a date on a calendar, and the fact that I absolutely, and with no questions, accepted the fact of that seniority, sums up in one vignette the whole Vietnam War.

After establishing his DEROS dominance he told us something about the obvious fact that we were going through South Vietnamese Customs Check. He asked if we had guns. He said he was sure we didn’t because he knew that we had been clearly told in our pre-departure briefings that we weren’t allowed to bring guns into Vietnam. I thought about asking him why there were so many guns in Vietnam if we weren’t allowed to bring them, but I didn’t have the energy. He said if we did have any, we needed to declare them for impoundment.

The rest was all a blur until I found myself at some sort of Air Force welcome point whose function was to officially welcome me and fellow Air Force Personnel to Vietnam and release us “in country”. We were told to go downtown and find a temporary place to stay, prior to commencing to official “in-processing” activity the next day. This was, from my point of view, the most surrealistic occurrence in a sureality already beyond any previous experience I had ever known.

“Go downtown and find a place to live” said one of the welcomers.

“Just where is downtown, and how does one get there? For that matter, where am I right now? And by the way, we still get news reports in the States; in the last couple of weeks before my departure a number of those news reports were about shootings and bombings in Saigon. Do I need to worry about any of that?”

These and more of a similar nature were thoughts that I had. None of them were turned into spoken words. I had already realized that this was a different game than I had ever played. I had no idea yet of the rules of the game, however, I was pretty sure that it was a game loser to ask questions about things like shootings and bombings. I was actually beginning to wonder if carrying a gun might have been a better career option for me.

Somehow I must have joined a small group of officers, because later I was with them “downtown” somewhere. That somewhere downtown is the first thing I remember after being welcomed. I have no memory of how I got there or what else I might have done or seen between being there and getting there.

Actually there was one memory, but it didn’t get remembered until much later. At that later time I suddenly remembered something that, when remembered, fell into place like a puzzle piece. That memory was a memory of a bunch of little kids playing in a giant mud puddle. Other than that I have no memory of anything until I found myself wherever “there” was.

But I was there.

One of the guys was an Army Caribou pilot who was being transferred to the Air Force. Someone in the Pentagon had decided that it made no sense for the world’s second largest air force to be part of the US Army, so massive numbers of people and inventory were being transferred to the first biggest air force. This guy had an unopened bottle of some kind of scotch. There were about five or six of us. We were in some common room, and we were sitting on the floor. The Army guy opened the bottle took a drink and offered it around. We all gratefully accepted in turn.

I had never drunk straight liquor without ice before.

I immediately liked it.

In that manner we passed the evening, emptying the bottle. We talked for hours. I have been never able to bring forth any other memory of that night except that it happened.

For the balance of my life I will never feel closer to a group of guys whose names I probably didn’t know at the time and who later I couldn’t remember, except for their fleeting involvement in my life.

The next morning, wherever it was that I was in the building that I was in, I awakened. I didn’t know where I was in the building. I had no idea where the building was in Saigon. In after life I have never been able to remember if I slept in my clothes, if I had clean clothes with me, or if I even knew what it was I supposed to wear “in country”. I have never been able to remember if I washed, shaved or brushed my teeth. I have never been able to remember what time it might have been. I had absolutely no idea of what day it was. I looked out the window and looked out over a disastrous jumble of roof and roof-like things. I must have been in an upper level of whatever it was that I was in.

And I always did remember thinking, “what a god-awful parody of a human city”. I have never known whether the rest of my memories of those first 24 hours in Saigon ever really happened.

By the time it had occurred to me to question those memories, so much time had passed that there wasn’t any way to answer any questions I might have had about what I thought that I remembered. Nonetheless, until it occurred to me to question it much later in life, it had lived with me as a vivid real unquestioned memory.

The little group of which I had become a part the previous evening had gathered somewhere in the place we had stayed. We started walking from wherever we were in what may have been the central part of Saigon toward Tan Son Nhut. We hadn’t walked long when we came upon a scene of carnage. An American jeep had been hit with some kind of an incendiary device because it was emitting a vertical wall of flame and its two occupants were engulfed in the flames, going through some kind of post or near death flame induced gymnastic activity. I have never been able to remember anything from that point until a time that must have been a day or two later.

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