Monday, April 29, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Eighteen: The Attaché Case

Sometime soon after I had set up my stereo and Sanyo refrigerator in Saigon, thus beginning my return from near psychological death I made one of the most significant purchases in my life. The Base Exchange often went for extended periods with nothing in it anyone would want to buy. There had been a period of seemingly never-ending weeks when they had tried to enforce a buy American regimen on us – by 1967 the quantity of Japanese stereos and cameras that were being sold in Vietnam was seriously harming America’s balance of payments with Japan. During that buy American attempt suddenly Sony, Sansui and Asahi Pentax had been replaced on the shelves by Ampex, Scott and Kodak. Gradually those shiny new American products gathered dust and grime as they languished on the shelves. No one was going to pay a major price premium for products that had substantially fewer features and were of substantially lower quality than their Japanese competitors. A period, which could have been described as the commercial equivalent of the trench-bound stalemate of World War One, ensued. About the only things the BX was selling were condoms and Tai princess rings.

The ultimate capitulation was spectacular. One morning the BX opened and the shelves were piled high with several models of Sony tape recorders. There were Akai tape decks. There were Teac Tape decks. There were Sansui and Kenwood amplifiers. There was a whole stack of Sanyo 1.5 cubic foot refrigerators. The glass enclosed jewelry case overflowed with a huge selection of Seiko watches. By ten in the morning a line snaked out of the exchange into the street, which created a problem for the myriad generals as they careened around the base in their chauffeured staff cars, bestarred flags flapping in their vehicularly haste driven breezes .

With all those people in line at the BX it was hard not to wonder how we could possibly be pursuing the war effort.

I waited to go to the Exchange until the crowds had abated toward late afternoon. I really didn’t need anything since I had bought all my stuff before the imposition of the now failed buy American program. But I wanted to see what was still there. One of the characteristics of retail in Vietnam was - no matter how large the quantity might have been of something that we actually wanted to buy - it would sell out in hours, or even, sometimes, minutes. So I wasn’t surprised to see sparsely populated shelves and floor space. But something caught my eye. Just behind the few Sanyos still on offer was a pile of attaché cases. Closer examination showed them to be quite tacky. They were two pieces of molded plastic forming the body and the lid of the case. But they had sturdy well made latches, a well-attached and durable handle, a drop down three pouch paper vault in the lid and an interior of short fiber synthetic material that disguised the plastic nature of the case. And they were only five dollars each. I had never approved of attaché cases, but one of these seemed to be just what I needed. I always had more to carry than I had pockets for, and officers weren’t supposed to have things in their pockets in any event. And, given the number of senior officers that were everywhere, the mechanics of saluting everything in sight made carrying anything that required two hands out of the question.

A purse was the obvious answer.

That attaché case became my purse.

I took it with me everywhere.

I was carrying it the night I tripped over a partially exposed stump of a tree root poking out of the ground just outside the entrance to Ton Son Nhut. I had been trying to catch a bus. I was able to get up quickly enough from tripping over the stump to pick up my attaché case and catch the bus. That had been partially because I had had the help of an old high school friend who had materialized out of nothing earlier in the day as an Army Lieutenant visiting Saigon.

His name was Bill and we had been friends in high school. Because he lived more or less in Jack’s neighborhood, he and Jack had done more things together in high school than Bill and I had, but we had been friends, partially drawn together by the common bond of being friends with Jack. Bill and Jack had become closer during college because they had both gone to Oregon State. They had been roommates for part of that time. So the surprise of having Bill suddenly show up had been a pleasant one. By that time in my Vietnam tour I had become utterly comfortable with my passive resistance of not giving a shit for the war effort and it had been pleasant to not only have encountered an old friend but to have that friend also be someone who was masquerading as an officer in the armed forces of the United States.

I was usually present and accounted for in the “war effort” for the pre-requisite number of “working hours.” By then I had become in charge by some militarily osmotic process of building the 7AFDITD target data base. “The 7AFDITD target data base” was a grand term for a rapidly growing hoard of punched 80 column cards that were periodically put through sorters, collators and, ultimately an IBM 407 accounting machine with an attached CAM – calculating accounting module – brothers and sisters of which were going to bring me to near fatal financial ruin some years later. At that time they were just hulking gray entities in a trailer across the compound from the hootch in which I worked. And my only relation with the 80 column cards was the preparation of the coding sheets that we used to extract and codify OPREP 4 results. Some higher being converted those coding sheets into 80 column cards. Then those cards became components of the 7AFDITDTDB. Normally an officer would have only supervised the endless extracting and transcribing of OPREP 4 results to coding sheets. Normally the actual physical job of coding the information to the coding sheets would have been the job of junior grade enlisted men. And I had some of junior grade enlisted men assigned to me, and they did transcribe. But I had decided early on to manifest a sort of solidarity with my enlisted men by coding my share of coding sheets. There was something almost lullingly narcotic about the process. And it passed time. Between that and signing Certificates of Destruction as George Washington or Who’s in the John, Milton? the time seemed to pass. At least - on those occasions when I awoke from the narcosis of coding - I could see my DEROS creeping ever closer. The other recommendation for taking coding as a primary function was that it was totally unnecessary. The size and quality of the 7AFDITDDB had no bearing on anything. The mere assertion of its existence was really its total purpose. That assertion and the ability to take visiting dignitaries to the trailer full of hulking gray entities was more than enough. The fact that there were huge quantities of 80 column cards with holes in them seemed to point to the inevitability of our ultimate defeat of the enemy. Many a light at the end of many a tunnel could be pointed out in that trailer full of obsolete tabulating equipment and vast drawers full of meaningless and mostly fictitious data.

The unnecessary nature of my primary function had translated into total personal freedom. When I was there in the hootch it was thought that I was first in line in contributing to the war effort. I produced prodigious quantities of coded OPREP 4 data. But since it was totally unnecessary, when I wasn’t there, nobody noticed or cared. I had actually been able to create the functional equivalent of not processing in and spending my tour in the Officers’ Club. As it was, I spent a great deal of my apparently dedicated to the war effort time in the Officers’ Club. I spent a great deal of time there primarily because it was dark and they served a generous scotch rocks for not much money. But I also spent a great deal of time there because I had realized very early in my tour that if one sat in the Ton Son Nhut Officers’ Club long enough one would see everyone that one had ever known who had any relationship to the commissioned military.

So I really wasn’t surprised to see Bill. I was surprised that he was a Lieutenant in the Army. I hadn’t heard that he had even gone into the military.

He had a bandage on his hand that was oozing blood. “Combat wound,” I thought to myself. So I bought him a drink. In the ensuing discussion he thrust out his hand and said “you’ve got to be careful when you’re scavenging”. I just looked at him waiting for some salty combat joke. He finished his drink and we ordered another one from the wandering Vietnamese cocktail provider. We lapsed into silence. That was not unusual. Bill had always been fairly laconic and conversations with him had always contained significant lapses into pregnant silence. About halfway through the second drink he said “I came down here to Saigon to get some stuff we need back at the fire base. One of those things is air conditioners. I couldn’t get supply to give me any, but I discovered an unguarded hootch with a brand new looking air conditioner. As I was removing it from the window I let it slip and it fell on my hand. It’s pretty messed up.”

We had a third drink and then re-convened to downtown. I had decided to take full advantage of my job as coder in chief. We went to various bars. We went to the My Canh floating restaurant for lunch and to see if anybody was going to try to blow it up that day. We finished off at the Mayfair in the early evening. I had to introduce a friend to my only favorite place in Saigon. Then we went to the roof bar of the Brinks and then we started to walk back to Ton Son Nhut. It was fairly early in the evening and I was going to go with Bill to the infirmary while he got the dressing on his hand changed. The appearance of the base bus had been a windfall. It would get us to the infirmary much more quickly than walking and would allow us more time for final drinks at the Officers’ Club.

As I tripped and fell I folded my right arm under myself and fell on it hard. The arm was kind of turned in toward my stomach at the elbow with my hand pointing outward toward my right ear. That posture and the force of my impact caused me to hear a distinct snap followed by a stab of pain in my right elbow. The attaché case flew out ahead of me grinding across the sand and gravel of the roadway. Bill was there in a moment and helped me up and we managed to catch the bus.

That fall made the occasion a much more communal one: both of us needed to go to the infirmary.

The bus didn’t go to the infirmary. It made a circuit of the Officers’ Club, the enlisted clubs and the BX. We got off at the BX, which was the closest point to the infirmary. On the way from the BX to the infirmary we encountered a member of the ROK – Republic of Korea guy. He had a fairly muscular Honda motor cycle that he was trying to get on. The problem he had was that he was trying to mount from the front by climbing over the handlebars. He was not succeeding. If he had succeeded he would have been sitting backward on the seat with the handlebars at his back.

He was really drunk.

Not knowing any Korean we left him to his own devices.

It was a fairly long walk to the infirmary. We were glad that we had caught the bus to get as close as we had. When we finally got to the infirmary, Bill explained that he needed the dressing on his hand changed and I explained that I thought that I had broken my arm.

They immediately asked us if there had been any hostile fire involved with our injuries. They were hoping to get us Purple Hearts.

Bill said no he had dropped an air conditioner he was stealing on the hand and I said that I had tripped over a stump.

The medics were fairly disgusted, but being medics they had to treat us. My elbow, they said, had experienced a hairline fracture.

My attaché case was heavily scarred.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Seventeen: T.L. Davis

One of the enlisted men in 7AF DITD shared my outlook on the war effort. He had no use for it. Like me he was too proud to not do the work, but like me, he was willing to let anyone who was around him know that he thought it was stupid waste of time. As he let people know that, he did the work in a superior manner. He must have been consistent in his superior manner of doing things since the beginning of his enlistment because, still in his first term of enlistment, he had already made E4. That was not unheard of but it was only heard of in the case of consistently superior performers.

One of the maddening characteristics of the “war effort” was that there could be large expanses of time requiring little or no “effort”. In the midst of one of the high-level-visitor-from-somewhere-probably-Washington DC goat rodeos it was hard to remember that we weren’t always required to work fast, long and intently – on really stupid things. But there were times, sometimes seemingly most times, when there just wasn’t much to do. Even officers could run out of OPREP 4s to code or Certificates of Destruction to sign.

In those times I usually went to the Officers Club. So did most of the other officers in 7AF DITD.

But enlisted men, since they actually were the ones that knew how to do things, didn’t have that privilege. They had to stay behind, nose to the grindstone, even though many times there was no grindstone. One never knew when the grindstone would appear in the blink of an eye, and in such an eye blink, enlisted competence would be needed the moment the eye blink and accompanying grindstone appearance might occur.

There was a benefit to the enlisted men in this arrangement, however. That was that when things got quiet and sans grindstone, and the officers all disappeared, the enlisted men could do whatever they wanted until either the officers or a grindstone or both reappeared. That sort of equity made time go much faster, I was told in confidence by several sergeants in whom I had complete trust for accuracy and candor.

One day I was too lost in writing a letter to Ruth - my second or third for the day - that I hadn’t noticed the recent exodus of all my fellow officers. That left me there alone, the only source of potential irritation to the enlisted men in their otherwise officerless span of control of the war effort.

When I came up for air, psychologically speaking, I looked around and found myself alone with the massive enlisted corps.

“What the fuck” I thought to myself, and went back to writing.

That apparently marked me – to all the enlisted guys – as a nonconforming officer. But the one who apparently took special note was T. L. Davis, the guy that I mentioned at the outset of this story. I say he took special note, because, unlike the other men, he waited for me to come out of my letter writing coma again and started a conversation.

I don’t remember what we talked about. It must have been somewhat interesting, because I do remember talking with him for quite some time. And that first time set a pattern.

Whenever I found myself in need of a break from coding OPREP4s I either read a book, wrote a letter or talked to T.L. He was a really interesting person.

T.L. stood for Toussaint Louverture.

T.L. was from New York. He claimed to know Adam Clayton Powell. In the course of our conversations he recommended that I read a couple of books. They were both biographies. One was of Sammy Davis Jr. the other was of Malcolm X. Both were good books. The Malcolm X autobiography was life changing for me. Or at least it changed my mind completely about one utterly misrepresented human being and caused me to question the validity of most of what made up the body of fact that we all were brought up to know and accept as cornerstone truths.

T.L. was a singer.

He entered some sort of theatre wide armed forces talent contest and won in popular vocal and took second in classical vocal. It appeared to me the race card had been in play in the classical award. But who knew?

T.L. had a DEROS much before mine so after a time I lost a valuable conversation partner.

I got his address and sent him a letter a few weeks after he left, but I never heard back.

I had thought we were friends of some sort, but I guess that hadn’t been the case.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Sixteen: OPREP 4s

Each mission flown by an Air Force plane was wrapped in an envelope of paper known cumulatively as OPREPs. I first encountered this fact in Saigon. The intelligence shop that I had been assigned to - 7AFDITD – after my brief brush with Briefing Officer fame, had consisted of a Lieutenant Colonel, two Majors, several Captains, a number of Lieutenants and a variably uncountable number of enlisted men, Sergeants through Airmen. The mission of this organization was varied and seemed to have a great deal to do with whatever happened to be the crisis du jour. The one backbone mission, however, was gathering results from the nearly infinite number of combat missions that were flown every day. The mission results were gleaned from a mimeographed piece of paper called an OPREP4. The OPREP4 was the mission summary, which was gathered by intelligence personnel at the operational air bases where the missions were flown. Presumably there were OPREP1s, 2s, and 3s, but I was never able to verify that fact. Actually I think I had once verified the fact, but had gone to sleep during the description of what they were. I had also heard that there was an OPREP5; it had something to do with fuel usage I had heard. I never knew whether that was true. OPREP4s were significant enough in their own right that it had never seemed very important to me whether there were others in the OPREP clan.

There was a wide variety of information that could be extracted from an OPREP4. What one extracted depended upon the mission of one’s organization. The mission of 7AF DITD was to supply higher-level intelligence organizations, those closer to McNamara and Johnson, the data necessary to prove that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Being that close to the people who talked to God had its advantages and its disadvantages. At any moment of any day or night there might suddenly be a need to come up with unobtainable information about unknowable statistics and to compare them, this period this year to this period last year. It was possible to tell when someone really important was in town by the level of hysteria that suddenly rose up and engulfed us in a spontaneously sudden and seemingly endless stream of unanswerable questions. LBJ had come to Saigon once under an impenetrable cloak of secrecy. But we all knew he must be there. For thirty-six hours we worked a never-ending stream of impossible to provide, completely irrational requests for information.

Our staple product however was trucks. More specifically, it was trucks destroyed and damaged. We were the sole source of that data element which was being gathered as one of the myriad components of the Seventh Air Force Data Base. From this database, once in existence, plans to run the war like a smoothly oiled corporation were envisioned. No question would be too trivial and no question would be too grand once that database was in existence. My contribution to the “war effort” was to be part of the trucks destroyed and damaged gleaning apparatus.

There was a cautionary note we were given in relation to our gleaning. A similar gleaning exercise had existed in the Korean War. It had gleaned locomotives destroyed and damaged. All had been going well until one day in the middle of a high level briefing someone pointed out that the number of locomotives cumulatively destroyed and damaged being reported exceeded the known inventory of such machines worldwide. While we appreciated the warning we were of the opinion that trucks – being a substantially smaller piece of machinery than a locomotive - were somewhat safe from anyone really knowing how many of them might exist in the world. So, while we tried to be cautious, the treasure-trove of destruction we gleaned from the OPREP4s went pretty unchecked into the database.

At 7AFDITD we had unfathomable quantities of OPREP4s. After a period of time there were so many of them that we needed to destroy them. OPREP4s were classified “Secret” so they needed to be so destroyed. Classified documents that had been destroyed needed to have their destruction documented by the existence of a CD, a Certificate of Destruction. CDs needed to be signed by an officer. I was the classified document control officer for 7AFDITD so I was the signer of the CDs for OPREP4s that had been destroyed.

After several thousand signatures, one day I remembered Yosarrian’s approach to signing censored letters to soldier’s families in Catch 22. I asked Doug, one of the sergeants who worked with me, if he thought it was OK to sign the CDs with the name John Milton. He said he thought it was OK as long as John Milton was an officer.

Working with intelligent and creative people was extremely liberating.

So I set about signing John Milton’s name to the CDs. Even though I was sure that John Milton was an officer, I couldn’t completely suppress a squeamish feeling. What if I was wrong? What if John Milton wasn’t an officer? So I switched to George Washington. I was sure he was an officer. But several thousand George Washingtons became tiring. So I switched to Douglas MacArthur and then to Harry Truman. I knew Harry had been a Captain in World War One. Finally, I switched with a flourish to “Who’s in the John, Milton?” After several thousand “Who’s in the Johns” I really did begin to worry about what might happen to me if a higher authority audited the CDs. I could see the articles of court martial: “Lieutenant McKeehan, in the face of the enemy, did sign, or allow to be signed, unfathomable quantities of Certificates of Destruction by John Milton, George Washington, Harry Truman, Douglas MacArthur and Who’s in the John, Milton?”

As I sank into uncontrollable gales of laughter I switched to signing Ho Chi Minh.

And I wasn’t just signing paper. There was more. My signature – or George Washington’s or Who’s in the John’s, signature – meant just what it said. It certified positive testament of having witnessed the destruction of those CDs (classified documents).

And I and my cadre of signature surrogates had indeed witnessed the destruction of those documents.

Every now and then – usually when I felt the need of an entertainment break – I would choose one of the enlisted men, get a side arm issued to me (the only time I had a gun in the war effort was when I watched the CDs being burned) and go to one of the two incinerators on base. There we would put the OPREP4s in the furnace and watch the smoke drift skyward and mix with the greasy black smoke of the other incinerator – the one at the morgue.

I never knew what it was that they burned over at the morgue, but they burned a lot of it, because every day the sky was filled with its greasy black smoke floating up a way and then horizontally down the sky.

Whatever it was that they burned, they also had a lot of something else left over – presumably intact or nearly so human shells – because every day , along with the smoke, there were conveys of flatbed truck loads of coffins going to the air strip to be loaded on C41s.

So signing the CDs was a simultaneously serious and frivolous business.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Fifteen: Catch 22

This is another story that occurred at a time other than 1967. As with the others, it serves a vital purpose at this point in the narrative. This one gives a little background for why I did what I did in the section that follows this one. That section is from Saigon 1967.


At Cannon Air Force Base I was in the backwater of the Air Force. That fact allowed for attitudes and activities to be accepted or ignored that would have been unthinkable at major base such as the headquarters of a numbered air force.

At Cannon I had been one of several junior officers and mostly first term enlisted men assigned to an intelligence unit which supported the Tactical Fighter Wing that was resident at Cannon. The Major in charge of that intelligence unit had retired soon after I had gotten there. He had functionally retired but had pretended to be still on active duty for a significant period of time before I had gotten there. Not long after I got there he actually retired. A captain who had been a pilot until he had developed diabetes became our senior officer. Two senior sergeants wielded the real power in our little group. This was a group of people all of whom were really smart, creative and funny. Since we had little to do, except wait for orders to Vietnam, we talked a lot.

Several of us read books in between the infrequent needs to do anything for the Air Force. Frequently we would end up having impromptu book discussions when one of us was reading a particularly interesting book. Somewhere during this time I started reading Catch 22. I had heard of it while I was in college, but I hadn’t ever gotten around to reading it.

At Cannon, it turned out to be one of the most amazing and funny things I had ever read. I not only discussed this book in our impromptu discussions, I also frequently read passages that were particularly outrageous, funny, pertinent, sinister or all of these. The parallels to the life we were all living were too obvious to ignore. The book became the center of our daily Air Force working life.

Then I finished it.

The minute I finished it I loaned it to one of the others to read.

And then they loaned it.

The loaning continued until we either had the book memorized or it had disintegrated from use. I was never sure which.

In the process of all this reading, discussing and loaning, one day someone had segued off a particularly ridiculous real incident-of-the-day and had started acting out a skit, including characters from Catch 22, and cross referencing and merging real incidents with incidents from the book. Immediately others of us chimed in. The first time this happened we went on for the better part of an hour until hilarity overtook and undermined any chance that a thread of sense could have continued through the sham.

But a new form of recreation had been born.

In infrequent moments of seriousness we discussed with some degree of concern what would happen if someone from the “outside”- a word that we began to apply to officers and enlisted men who were not a part of our little intelligence/theatrical group – came in during one of our performances.

The intensity of the performances was so closely mated to our mutually perceived reality that it was hard to stop until a scene had played itself logically to a conclusion. If some pilot had come in during of one of these performances it would have been very likely that we would have been unable to cease and desist. We probably would have tried to include him in the story. After all, the main characters of Catch 22 were pilots


The odds of that turning out well would have been low. We probably would have had to kill him.

We never concluded what to do about this possibility. Fortunately it never happened. But we enjoyed several months with an amazing amount of self-generated entertainment.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Fourteen: Raspberries and Urine

In Saigon, in 1967, the memory of Bob’s saying had served two functions.

First it had provided a light hearted rational for dealing with a deadly serious problem. Even with the whisper, even with the opening of the chrysalis, I had remained on the slippery precipice of the edge. I had slipped over the edge once. I was back above edge, but barely. Thrusting myself into the middle of the “wife” part of “anything I cared about, my wife, my two sons, my mother and father and two sisters and various old girl friends, fraternity brothers, teachers and friends”, and doing it in a place like Hawaii, and then needing to return to Captain Cochon’s reality struck me as a high risk proposition. Doing it, because it was the bidding of the whisper, seemed mandatory. Doing it, because it seemed sensible, seemed rational. Doing it, because it seemed fun, seemed inevitable. But I was overwhelmed with the implication of my equally mandatory, rational and inevitable return after seven days.

Bob’s saying, unquestionably funny, was also philosophical enough to be a potential touchstone for me to deal with the inevitable battle with depression after I had returned with six weeks still to go.

So I met Ruth in Hawaii. She had taken care of all the arrangements. All I had to do was show up. As I walked through the door of the lodging facility and saw her for the first time in eleven months I thought it was odd. She was so blond. She was so tall. I hadn’t realized how my template of what a woman looked like had changed after almost a year in Vietnam. And then she spoke. “Oh, you’re really here.” I had forgotten that women could speak American accented English. Yes, I was there. But apparently I was also elsewhere. As soon as I saw her, heard her and had my arms around her I began to have an overwhelming desire to not be there.

If I could have jumped on the next plane for Saigon I would have done it. I think I must have been experiencing what a horse that has been saved from a burning barn feels.

There was no reason to it, and it took a day to completely banish it.

But it was banished.

We spent the next seven days doing things barely on the something side of nothing. Time just passed. There was no schedule. We had never eaten mahi mahi. We ate mahi mahi. We had never had real fresh pineapple. We ate real fresh pineapple. We swam in the waves in front of the old beachfront hotels and drank in their bars. We drove around the island one day and discovered that there were almost no restaurants outside of Honolulu. We got up really late every morning after going to bed really late every night.

And then it was over.

Crying had passed from my emotionscape with the passing of early adolescence. Where tears had once been embarrassingly frequent there had become instead a naturally stoic replacement. The only exception to that had been at my grandmother’s funeral. She was my mother’s mother. She had lived with us for the last eleven years of her life after her husband, my grandfather “Bobby” had died. Grammy had been one of my best friends, and one of the best friends of most of my high school and college friends. She had died in her sleep one night while I was away at my first duty assignment in the Air Force. Ruth had lived with my parents while I was at Officer Training School and immediately after OTS because she was soon to have our first child. Grammy had lived long enough to see her first grandchild before she died. My mother felt that she had stayed around longer than she would have had it not been for that imminent birth. I had been able to get emergency leave to go home for the funeral. My friends and I had a wake for my grandmother the night before the funeral.

My friends had really loved Grammy, perhaps almost as much as I had.

The wake was an interminable celebration of the fact the she had existed. Quite a lot of Irish and Scotch whisky were consumed in that celebration.

The funeral was a requiem mass at Madeleine. At the end of the mass all of us in attendance filed past the coffin. It was the custom, apparently, to have coffins open for the payment of last respects at Catholic funerals, because Grammy’s was open. I was all right until Ruth and I got in the car and I started driving home. Suddenly from nowhere I was overwhelmed with great gut wrenching sobs that I couldn’t stop.

As I lay on the bed in Honolulu in October of 1967, knowing that in no time at all I was going to be back in Saigon, and at the point of that realization with my wife still in my arms I couldn’t help but remember that funeral as I tried to control the uncontrollable primal sobs that were overwhelming me.

As I lay there with my arms around Ruth - helplessly sunk in despair - I seriously thought about Canada. I had about twenty-four hours to make a break for it.

I had civilian clothes.

I could catch a plane for Vancouver from Honolulu and Ruth and Noel and Joe could catch up with me a few days later from Portland.

I could start a new life.

I had a college degree.

I could get a job.

Canadians were sympathetic, I had heard, to Americans who wanted to avoid or wanted out of the war.

t seemed very real to me as, not an option, but as a course of action.

I have always liked to think that honor had something to do with the fact that I got back on the plane to Saigon the next day instead. Honor has a burnishing effect on the patina of one’s self image. But, when I really faced the facts surrounding my return to duty rather than escaping to Canada I knew that the real reason for my return was the strength that something someone had once said to me in Quincy Washington had given to me.

So much for honor, I had thought.

Getting off the plane at Ton Son Nhut, squinting into the blinding glare of an early afternoon Saigon sun, which immediately turned my shirt to sweaty slime, I was nearly pitched back into the abyss. But as I walked to the hootch to return to work, to return to the “war effort”, with the smell of urine and raspberries wafting about me, I stayed on my side of sanity. I even had to laugh.

I clearly saw Bob saying to me across the miles and years,

“My God, Noel. I could pick fly shit out of pepper for five weeks.”

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Thirteen: A Helpful Saying

This is a story that occurred substantially before Saigon 1967. It occurred in 1960. But it turned out to have direct relevance and immense influence upon something that occurred in Saigon in 1967.


I was lucky. Starting with the summer that I graduated from High School and extending through all the summers of my four college years I had a job. And it was a good job. It paid twice minimum wage and hour and had a daily per-diem for living expenses; the per diem was paid because the jobs were always somewhere other than in Portland. They were always in small towns and cities in the rural Pacific Northwest.

I worked for a company called Pettijohn Engineering.

The summer I graduated from High School the job was out of the field office in Quincy Washington. I lived in a place called Henry’s Motel. There actually was a Henry. He and his wife ran Henry’s.

The job was working on a surveying crew doing the engineering for Wanapum Dam. Wanapum was one of the several massive hydro electric dams that were built on the Columbia River in the 50s and 60s. As a group those dams rang the death knell for the huge schools of salmon that had run the Columbia for eons.

But working on the dam was the source of a good income, and the job was in the outdoors during the summer which was hot, but pleasant. And it was interesting to the point of being fun on many occasions. And we were not to know that we were killing all the salmon until all the projects were finished and many years had passed. And after all, we built salmon ladders, so the fish should certainly have been happy and prosperous. They needed to take some responsibility for their continued survival.

The boss on that project was a guy named Bob.

The summer after Quincy and Wanapum – the one between my freshman and sophomore year in college - I worked out of the field office in Madras in Central Oregon. The project entailed the engineering for Round Butte Dam. Round Butte Dam, when finished would have a pool that would back up into three of the most beautiful rivers in the world: the Deschutes, the Crooked and the Metolius. The Round Butte project was making Madras a boomtown. It was a town of fifteen hundred people and had very little public lodging. I had to get creative about where I lived. I lived for the summer in a rented room in the Highway Beauty Shop. The work was on the talus slopes of the three rivers. Central Oregon, like Central Washington is a desert. It is awash in sunshine. Working for and with surveyors was more fun than should be allowed in a paying job. That summer came and went too soon.

The summer between sophomore and junior year I worked at Chelan County Public Utility District in Wenatchee Washington. I was the sole Pettijohn Engineering employee working there. I didn’t know it until several years later, but I had been chosen over several adult full time Pettijohn engineers for the job. Apparently I met both Pettijohn’s and the PUD’s expectations because I was there until a week before college started. It was a desk job. Every hour I called a PUD sub office at Rock Island Dam, which was one of their power producing facilities. There were some French designed and manufactured devices that looked like rocket nose cones with a propeller on their points. They were about two feet long and less than a foot in diameter. There was one of these for every turbine. Every hour the devices were lowered en masse into a turbine chamber where a series of readings measuring the stream flow through the turbine were taken. These readings were taken by a person who was physically located in part of the turbine chamber in the bowels of the dam. The readings came to him via a telemetrically connected gauge. After thirty minutes of these readings had been taken, the readers would average the readings and relay the information to an office in the daylight portion of the dam. I called that office every hour, and entered their information on a form and performed some calculations. The reason for all this activity was that Wanapum Dam, when its pool was filled, was going to go far enough up the Columbia that it was going to impinge upon Rock Island Dam’s “head”. “Head” in the parlance of hydropower, is the distance the water falls from the pool behind the dam to the river below. In this case the river below was going to become the pool below, cutting the distance Rock Island’s exiting water would fall, thus cutting the energy it could produce. The hourly readings and calculations were all being conducted in the pre-impingement environment. They would continue measuring post impingement. There would, I must have guessed, be a post impingement vs. pre-impingement calculation performed. However derived, the loss in output of Rock Island Dam would be paid to Chelan County either in dollars or in power or both by Grant County who owned Wanapum.

This was an interesting job. And living in Wenatchee was quite different from Quincy and Madras. At thirty thousand people Wenatchee was a virtual metropolis by comparison. I lived at the Bruce Hotel, a vestige from the previous century. Its main occupants when I lived there were old men. I was the only occupant below the age of sixty. I also had a deluxe room. It had a bathroom.

The PUD’s employees were a great group of people, and I made a lot of friends. They were different from surveyors, but in their way they were equally enjoyable. I had myriad interesting philosophical discussions with a number of them because I got really good at what I was supposed to do, and it only took about ten minutes out of an hour to do it. And I volunteered to do other things with the extra time, and sometimes they had things for me to do. But nobody was overworked and we were all able to get to know each other quite well. They were all interested to have someone to talk to who was in college. It turned out that all of this was politically astute in the extreme, although I didn’t have a clue about politics at the time. But Pettijohn Engineering had bet on that happening, and it apparently made them look very good.

Apparently it made them look so good that they asked me to come back the next summer to work at Rock Island Dam. I was to be one of the guys in the bowels of the dam reading the gauges. It wasn’t until I had done that for the better part of the summer that I admitted to myself that this just wasn’t the same. There was no sunshine, or sagebrush or surveyors or PUD office guys. This job was a solitary activity. I was in a small chamber that looked something like a space capsule. There was a big shiny cylinder in front of me that was spinning at an amazing rate of speed. And, probably as a by-product of that spinning, there was an all-pervasive high-pitched whine that followed me home at day’s end. And it was hot and humid. And it seemed like the air was filled with an exceedingly fine spray of lubricant that settled on my face over the day and went home with me at day’s end. The lubricant may have been self generated from the fine cover of perspiration that the heat and humidity caused.

This job just wasn’t much fun.

So I went to the boss with a request.

The boss was Bob again. He was the manager in charge of whatever work it was that Pettijohn Engineering continued to obtain in the Grant and Chelan County area. And they had continued to get quite a bit because they had a great reputation for the quality of the work already completed. Bob’s office was still in Quincy, and I was living in Quincy at Henry’s again – Henry and his wife still owned and operated it – so one morning before my ride picked me up for the trip to the Dam I stopped in to see Bob.

“Bob, hi. I needed to talk to you before work.”

“Hey, Noel. How are things at the dam?”

“Great. But, actually, that is what I came to talk to you about. I need to get out on a crew.”

“What do you mean?”

“I really am glad to be working and earning money this summer, and the work is pretty interesting and the people are great, but I just am an outside person.”

“How so?”

“Well right now I spend most of my time alone in a little compartment under the water level of the dam. It’s hot, there aren’t any people to talk to, and I’m turning pale. I need sunshine. Couldn’t you trade me out to a crew and put somebody else in the dam?”

By this time there weren’t the number of Pettijohn crews working in the area that had been there three years before. The engineering phase of the Wanapum project was winding down. So I was probably asking Bob to do something that wasn’t easy. I suspected on later contemplation, though, that he had seen an opportunity to teach a rookie something that would be valuable as a life lesson.

“How long before you go back to college?”

I had to think a minute.

“About five weeks.”

He got a quizzical look on his face and thought for a minute.

“So, you can’t stand working in the turbine room for five weeks?”

“I can. I just would rather not.”

“My God, Noel. I could pick fly shit out of pepper for five weeks.”

I returned to the dam for the rest of the summer.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Twelve: The Edge of the Abyss

There is a chapter eleven but, after re-reading it I have decided that the, at the time of the story, highly classified information in it may still be classified and sensitive.  Putting this memoir up for consumption for free makes me risk averse.


I had arrived in Saigon around Thanksgiving of 1966. Fairly soon after reaching anything one could call a normal routine I had begun to slip unknowingly into a psychological morass. More accurately, “I” was slipping into an abyss, and as weeks went by, it got worse. “I” went to work. “I” did what seemed to need to be done to keep people from yelling at me. “I” walked. “I” talked. “I” ate. “I” drank. “I” slept. “I” even seemed to make some new friends. But “I” wasn’t really there. The “I” doing all those apparently necessary and normal things was an exoskeleton. The real “I” was inside that exoskeleton and was receding into it rapidly. The activities, events and friends were like nearly-seen shadows with some substance, but shadows nevertheless.

I was going to read enough in later years to figure out that I had been in the depths of a classic and profound depression. But at the point of its happening, that reading hadn’t happened yet. Therefore didn’t know what the problem was, or if there even was a problem. I just felt dislocated and strange and semi-present. I kept going but it was as if the part that was going was a different entity. That entity was not only a different person. That entity was a completely different sort of thing. That different sort of thing seemed a mere one click on the dial away from profound and total unconsciousness. One or two clicks more and everything would cease to be conscious reality at all. And “nothing” was the only “thing” that seemed to be worthwhile. “Everything else” was just too overwhelmingly worthless.

Somewhere deep within that exoskeleton my real being might still have existed; I didn’t know; but if it did still exist it was gradually receding. And that being – that “me” that might have still been there - would periodically point out that if “I” didn’t do something, the result was going to be oblivion. That being constantly barraged me with “this is not good” statements uttered with a sort of disapproving clucking of its tongue. And I would say “Fine. It’s not good. Don’t think I’m doing this for fun. What do you suggest that I/we do?” Then it would say, “I don’t know. Just do something - maybe anything.” Then I would say, “What does that mean?” Then it would say, “I just don’t know.”

So I worked at pretending to be an intelligence officer. I pretended to live on Toy Ngoc Hau. In early pre-dawn mornings I walked to the Officers’ Club. On the way I walked beside the open ditches that smelled like a mixture of raspberries and urine. I sat in the dark, closed bar and played the jukebox before going to breakfast. I listened to “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” and “If You’re Going to San Francisco”. I bought food from the steam table that served breakfast. One morning, I even laughed at a request made by the flight suited Major in front of me in line, who ordered corn beef hash by saying “I’d like a couple scoops of that Pard with a couple of eggs.”

The “Pard” was corn beef hash.

I may have appeared all right. But I was close to the edge. More accurately, I was close to a lot of edges.

Finally I did something. I spent some of the money I had been not spending. I bought a Sansui stereo amplifier. I bought a Gerard turntable. I bought a Sony reel to reel stereo tape recorder. I bought some 33-RPM records. The evening that I got all those components assembled was the beginning of my return from the edge. The first song on the first album that I put on the turntable was “Do You Believe in Magic”. When the music started, something lifted from me and departed. The effect of that song was as magical as the effect coca cola always had on my legendary hangovers.

The exoskeleton was turning out to be more like a chrysalis. After the “something” had departed, the rest of me began to re-emerge.

But it had been a close call.

How close a call can be illustrated by my near loss of believing that I had ever been anywhere else or had ever been in any other circumstances.

As I had begun to sink into the morass, I had found it necessary to withdraw from having feelings and had needed to deal with vestiges of feelings from which I had not been able to withdraw very carefully. The thought process that had flashed forth during the captain Cochon incident, (I was thousands of miles away from anything I cared about, my wife, my two sons, my mother and father and two sisters and various old girl friends, fraternity brothers, teachers and friends) had become a major influence on me. It had become the portal to the abyss. I had needed to keep it out of my conscious thoughts as much as possible. I had needed to pretend that it didn’t affect me. I had needed to ignore the calendar. I had needed to be, as much as I could possibly make it be, only in existence “here”. I had needed, as much as possible not to have had another existence “there”. I had needed not to think about ever going anywhere else. These needs had been the only “something” that I had been able to figure out to do when that vestige of me would say, “Just do something - maybe anything”. As the chrysalis began to open, I began to hear a whisper. It pointed out that I had the right to think of a life after Saigon. It pointed out that I had the need to think of other places and times. It pointed out that happiness could come from planning a future. It pointed out that the future could start soon, because I had been in Vietnam long enough to sign up for a rest and recreation trip. The acceptance of that possibility made the process back from the edge, which had started with the songs of the Lovin’ Spoonful, accelerate. I realized that I could meet Ruth in Hawaii. I realized that I could immediately begin banishing the nightmare that I had allowed Captain Cochon to foist on me. I realized that I could be proactive. I realized that I could actually live, and breathe, and think, and act, normally. I realized that the circumstances I was in were transitory.

As obvious as all of that would have sounded to anyone to whom I might have confided it, if I had had anyone to whom I could have confided it, and as easy as that obviousness would have made those realizations seem to have been, they were heart wrenchingly difficult.

In downtown Saigon, at the USO there was a telephone from which it was possible to call the United States. It wasn’t cheap. A reservation was needed several weeks in advance. But that phone could be a brief transport to another world.

Several weeks had passed since I had made my phone call reservation. I was at the USO. I had made an appointment with my family – Ruth and Noel, and Joe were living with my parents – via letter. I wrote that letter immediately after I had realized what it was that the whisper was saying to me.

The phone rang, and rang, and rang.

Someone answered.

It was my mother.

I had expected Ruth, but my mother was the one who answered.

Talking on that phone was like talking with a siren. It was almost possible to see a sine curve in front of your face as the person on the other end spoke to you. Their voice started out as a low rumble and increased in pitch until, at the apparent peak of the sine curve, the person was talking in a normal voice. Then it tailed off to the rumble on the other end.

Those peaks of the sine curve were like talking to someone.

The rest was like trying to interpret the words of a retarded robot.

After my mother, Ruth came on.

I told her what I wanted to do.

I wanted to meet her in Honolulu during the first week in October.

The week after that, the week I would return to Saigon after being with her in Hawaii, would mark the point at which I would have less than six weeks to go.

I would be less than six weeks from my DEROS.

I could occupy most of my time with out- processing.

I could return to living at the Officers’ Club.

I could visualize actually getting through those less than six weeks.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Ten: My Brief Stardom

The commissioned ranks of Air Intelligence had two separate specialty codes – 8054 for Briefing Office and 8044 for Photo Interpretation Officer.

When I was in Saigon I was a Briefing Officer. A Briefing Officer’s job was to “sell” the Air Operations people (the pilots) on various targets.

The Photo Interpretation Officer was in charge of identifying all potential targets and learning everything they could about those targets, working them into a great strategic mélange of information that could be accessed tactically in support of the strategy of winning the “war effort”.

The interlock between the strategic mélange and tactical execution was the Briefing Officer. Briefing Officers “sold” the Air Operations liaison Intelligence Officers – another, unknown to me, specialty code - on various targets.

In actual fact, there was no real relation between the targets we tried to “sell” and winning the war. We simply had an untold number of things that could be bombed and we needed to bomb as many of them as possible, as often as possible. We talked about strategic/tactical results, but the reality was, there were a bunch of guys running around in black pajamas causing untold trouble. It was thought by our leaders that if we put enough airplanes in the air every day over enough targets we would probably kill some of those guys in black pajamas. The mélange and the selling were nothing more than a grand charade in which we indulged to implement actions in service of our leaders’ assumption. The truth was that it was an elegant and macabrely massive application of the random walk theory. But that was not a truth that anyone would admit. It was too much like the works of Shakespeare from a room full of monkeys theory.

In my time in Saigon there was one violation of the application of the ongoing random walk approach to dropping ordinance on the enemy. That was a two or three month period in which the Mu Ghia Pass was bombed around the clock. At the Mu Ghia Pass there was a confluence of a number of trails that the enemy used to bring men and supplies into South Vietnam. The roads came from a variety of countries. That confluence at Mu Ghia was seen as a concentration point which the enemy had to traverse. “If we are willing to expend enough ordinance over a long enough time, without letup, we can stop them,” thought the warriors-in-chief.

After several months there had been no measurable decline in men or supplies from the enemy in South Vietnam.

The project was abandoned. We returned to a random walk.

Since the components of our strategic mélange lacked any actual strategic or tactical value, and since all the vast hoard of classified material supporting the creation and “sale” of the mélange wasn’t even accurate, or based in any rational conception of reality, I turned to another source.

I had noticed that Time Magazine (I had my Time subscription delivered to me in Saigon, albeit a version with very thin paper compared to the domestic magazine) had much deeper discussions of many of our targets. And Time’s discussion of the conduct and results of many of the missions with which I was familiar was much more in-depth, interesting and insightful than the information I could glean from classified sources. At first this irritated me. Why were my classified sources so boring, irrelevant, wrong and, basically, useless? Why couldn’t we do a better? Why couldn’t we do a competent job of gathering and disseminating intelligence? Time magazine could; why couldn’t we?

Then an idea occurred to me. Why not use Time as my source wherever possible for my briefings? Who would know? I read the classified stuff. Nobody would know that I was only using the classified stuff as a fact checker where that was possible against what Time had to say. Where the facts were absent and Time had information so much the better. There was no way to question me.

My briefings, which had been up to that point encounters my audience bore up under as a professional duty requirement, quickly became lively well-attended events. I suddenly gained the reputation of being a young officer on the rise. And, best of all, I was assimilating and purveying information that was actually interesting enough to keep everybody, even me, awake and paying attention. But I had already made the career decision not to let anybody or anything make me really care.

That was probably a good thing.

On the strength of my vastly improved briefing skill I was chosen to replace a departing lieutenant whose primary function had been to brief every morning the brigadier general who was commander of the entire 7AF HQ intelligence function. The subject of these briefings was everything that had happened overnight. The problem with that, in addition to an aversion I had toward generals, was that the information available for preparing them was only our useless, boring, inaccurate classified information. Time magazine was weekly. Its information was a week old, not overnight. So I was back in the soup.

The difference this time was that the general really thought he was winning the “war effort” and wanted to know “what” and “why” and “who” and a bunch of other interrogatives about every subject. That information was either not readily available or was totally unavailable. Without Time Magazine I was dead meat. As a result my answers very quickly transmitted the impression, which was fact, that I didn’t give a shit and, in any event the interrogatives were so trivial as to be ridiculous.

I was quickly replaced with someone who gave a shit.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Nine: Under Attack?

That evening after dinner at my neighborhood officers’ mess I had gone home since the movie was not good. I went to the roof with my glass of ice and clear liquor. After about 20 or so minutes I was ready for a refill.

That was when the explosions started. Then there was gunfire. Then there were more explosions, then more gunfire. It sounded as if it was at the non dead-end part of the street, the part that joined the main road to Ton Son Nhut. It also sounded as if it was moving my way.

I had the feeling that I was going to need to execute the plan that I had devised for this sort of situation. It was not a good feeling.

I got into position ready to execute my plan. I had a detailed diagram of the room in my head as I sat on the toilet.

Since the door of the residence was directly opposite the very thick half wall with the suitcases and boxes piled on it, those suitcases and boxes were a central part of my plan. On the other side of that wall was the toilet and shower enclosure. The toilet itself was a convenient – the only in fact – seat upon which I could perch while events took their course, and while I waited to execute the plan.

The wall was thick enough that it probably would stop a bullet. The toilet enclosure offered a place to hide so someone storming the room would have the initial impression that it was empty. The thick wall was high enough that to reach the stuff piled on it from inside the enclosure I would have to jump like a basketball player doing a jump ball.

The plan was to get into the enclosure and listen intently to the activities going on in the street and immediately outside my residence. I had no idea how the Viet Cong would act once they got to our place and had either dispatched the QC or the QC had, as I expected they might, gone elsewhere, or might even have joined in with the attackers. If they were fast and noisy the timing of my actions would be easier to calculate. It would be just adrenaline driven desperation based on someone crashing into my place. That was scary, but it would have been pretty easy. The less obvious, and less easy, from a timing viewpoint implementation was if they took the place, and then went silently to each residence. How would I know when to act? The only thing I could think of was that if they were noisy it was going to be easy; if they were really quiet, I would have to listen for any cue, like the faintest click of the door latch.

The plan was that, once I knew they were in the room, and therefore briefly directly opposite the thick wall, I would, on the inside of the enclosure execute the basketball jump maneuver and push everything I could get off the ledge out and into the room. That was quite a lot of stuff and some of it was pretty heavy. The theory was that it would come down on the intruder in volume and force sufficient to at least cause a lot of confusion, perhaps slow him down for a moment, or maybe, with real luck, inflict minor injury. At least one of those things needed to happen to make the rest of the plan viable. The basketball tip-in was to have two components. There was the leap and push followed by hitting the floor and pouncing forward to the door of the enclosure, opening it and hurtling into the room. Then there was attacking the – hopefully – down-on-the-floor and momentarily-confused intruder, beating him senseless, taking his gun, killing him and then figuring out what to do next.

I spent the next hour listening to the ebb and flow of a battle. It never got any closer to me than when I heard the initial explosions. Until it stopped altogether it never got any farther away. I never found out what had happened.

The QC weren’t talking.

Unless you have spent an hour sitting on a toilet in Saigon waiting to try to kill someone before they killed you can’t possibly grasp the real meaning of the Vietnam experience.

The juxtaposition of murder and toilet always seemed to me to be the basis for some deeply troubled book I might write someday. I don’t feel that this one is it. Maybe later.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Eight: Toy Ngoc Hau

Whenever I think of the sound of explosions and shots, my memory always jumps to a more personal and individual encounter with near combat than that semi-vicarious episode at Nha Bey.

I lived at the terminus of a dead end street named Toy Ngoc Hau. In other words, I lived at the dead end of a dead end. Both sides of the street were lined with two or three story residential multi-unit dwellings dating back to the days when Vietnam was a French colony. The residents were a mix of Vietnamese civilians, American civilians and American military. Security ranged from none in most places to QC guards in the building where I lived. The QC were ethnic Chinese that had been in Vietnam for generations, but were not really integrated into Vietnamese life. The ones who guarded my building were members of a paramilitary organization that preferred the American backed South Vietnamese regime to the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese. They were supposed to be great guards against terrorist incursions. I never had occasion to find out if they were great guards, but I was pretty nervous about the proposition.

On account of the location of my residence at the end of a dead end street and my lack of confidence in the security apparatus I frequently thought about what I would do if the Viet Cong were to try to attack the residence. The fact that it was an American military residence had seemed to me to make the possibility of an attack somewhat likely.

My residence was a reasonably large space, probably 50 square meters with nine or ten foot ceilings. I have learned from later life experiences in Paris that the same sort of configuration could have been converted into a very comfortable studio or even one bedroom apartment. The building was a French style two story building with balconies looking over the street below, with a roof terrace with some chairs and a lot of plants. The roof terrace with some chairs and a lot of plants does not translate to a roof garden, however. It was a roof terrace with some chairs and a lot of plants, no more.

In relation to the configuration of things in my 50 square meters, since it was Saigon 1967, not Paris many years later, instead of an apartment the space was 50 square meters with an enclosed shower and toilet.

That was it.

The room had one door that came in off the balcony. It was on the second floor. It was at the farthest end of the balcony from the access stairway. The shower and toilet were enclosed by a very thick wall that faced the door and paralleled the outer wall. At a right angle to that wall was a much thinner wall that joined with the back wall of the room and contained the door into the shower and toilet enclosure. Both of these inner walls stopped three or so feet below the ceiling. The front thick wall was so thick – maybe 3 feet or more – that, since there was a big space between it and the ceiling, it had become a convenient storage space for suitcases, duffel bags, empty stereo boxes and anything else that my roommate and I didn’t want to throw away, but needed to have out of the way. Directly opposite the wall that contained the door into the toilet enclosure was the outside wall of the building; I had an end of building location. Against that wall were our two beds – Dale’s and mine – which were arranged with the head against the wall and the foot extending into the room toward the toilet enclosure. Between the two beds was a big cardboard box with enough rigidity and strength to function as a table for my stereo equipment. Next to the stereo “table” was my little Sanyo refrigerator. It was quite homey.

These were the components at my disposal to defend myself in the event of a Viet Cong attack. I had no gun, and if they were to burst into my room, I would have to make some kind of use of the configuration and the components and contents of the room.

Based on this, I actually formulated a plan.

We were authorized a monthly ration of hard liquor and beer. The beer was uniformly so awful – usually Crown beer from Korea - that I never used my beer ration, but instead traded it to one of the enlisted men for one or two of their hard liquor rations. Enlisted men, I learned, drank beer. Officers drank liquor. There was no wine. So – between my rations and the supplements I traded from the beer drinkers - each month I had three or four liters to supplement what I drank at the various officers’ clubs and open messes around Saigon.

I had developed the routine of coming to the residence after work, changing clothes and going to one of a couple of off-base officer’s messes close to where I lived. One of them had movies in the mezzanine bar and I could sit at the bar and have a drink and watch a movie. When a good movie was on offer that is usually what I did after dinner. And then I would go home to bed. But on the evenings when the movie was bad, or there wasn’t one, I would go home after dinner, put some ice in a water glass and fill it with gin or vodka, and go to the roof for the balance of the evening. The choice of gin or vodka depended upon what had been available at the base liquor store that month. After several return trips for more ice and more gin or vodka things usually didn’t seem quite as grim as they had only an hour or two earlier.

If it was the beginning of the month, which meant that I had all the money I was going to have for that month, I usually felt somewhat affluent, and I would go downtown to the Mayfair restaurant. I didn’t know it at the time - because I was close to being as culturally unconscious as it was possible to be and still manifest generally human characteristics - but the Mayfair was a French restaurant. It was leftover from French colonial days. Somebody had told me to go there, and I had done so. It was one of the few pleasant experiences I ever had in Vietnam.

The Mayfair was run by Vietnamese, but, I figured out later, the menu was French. I always ordered the onion soup, some kind of deviled crab baked in its carapace and a San Miguel beer. San Miguel beer was from a brewery in the Philippines. It had been owned at one time by General MacArthur. Since MacArthur was an officer it was OK for me to drink it. That MacArthur had owned San Miguel Brewery may have been a myth. It was nevertheless the best beer I had ever drunk. The first time at the Mayfair when the soup arrived it was in a tureen. The surface was lumpy and brown and almost burned in places and solid over the entire surface area. It was what I learned later to be soupe a’l’onion gratineé, which was to become one of my favorite foods. At the time of that first encounter it had been a new and strange adventure.

When I took a spoon to the brown lumpy surface it offered resistance. Soup slopped up and nearly sloshed out of the tureen onto the table cloth. The whole thing was kind of a crust on top of the soup. After some experimentation I discovered that it had chunks of French bread with some kind of melted cheese. The trick, I discovered, was to isolate small pieces of bread and cheese out of the mass and push it gently down into the liquid and retrieve it with a spoonful of liquid, using my fingers to break the skeins of cheese from the mass, so I could lift it to my mouth. It was rather like eating Pizza.

The Mayfair’s onion soup has remained in my memory as being among the best I have ever had anywhere, the best being at the Petite Chaise in Paris. And the crab had proved to be every bit as wonderful in its own way.

So the first of every month I went back to the Mayfair and ordered the same thing for the duration of my time in Saigon.

It was one evening when I was waiting for a bus downtown to go to the Mayfair that I had two odd experiences.

It was getting dark. I was standing at a bus stop. There were lots of Vietnamese civilians milling around doing whatever Vietnamese civilians did at that time of the evening out on the street. Since the bus stop was in front of some sort of public building there were also several white mice, as the Vietnamese police were called; they wore white shirts, hence the white part of their name. So there was an audience for the first experience. A young, probably American, woman appeared out of the advancing gloom walking up the dirt roadside which served as a sidewalk, with a dog on a leash. The dog was a Great Dane. It was probably the biggest Great Dane I have ever seen. The Vietnamese were amazed. Their eyes got very large, and everyone stopped and stared. I knew they were thinking about how many cutlets and steaks they could get off the beast. It was a moment of intense cultural differentiation.

The other thing, that happened next, was of a similar cultural nature. The woman and Great Dane had receded into the other end of the gloom and I was still standing in the darkness, broken by a weak street lamp, waiting for the bus. An old Vietnamese man who was walking along the roadside stopped and said something to me. He was carrying on his right shoulder a thing that looked like two wire circles each with a series of vertical spikes attached, with the circles attached to a central shaft. On each of the spikes was a lump of a reddish blackish substance. My impression was that it was probably some kind of meat.

He was trying to sell some of it to me. I wouldn’t have bought whatever it was under any circumstances, but I was really curious about what it was. I had never seen this sort of configuration of snack vending. In some manner I asked him what the lumps might be, and he said something. Of course I had no idea what he said. Of course he knew I had no idea what he had said. He said something else, and this time made a gesture up to the sky. He said something repetitively and pointed here and there above his head. Since it had become dark the sky above us between the trees had become full of flitting bats.

He apparently was a barbecued bat vendor.

It was several evenings after that encounter that I had the opportunity to test my plan for coping with a terrorist attack.

Monday, April 8, 2013

There is a Limit

I really like Rachel Maddow.

I always agree with her and cheer when I hear what she has to say. 

But tonight on her show she spun me around.

What she had to say about Lady Thatcher and her friend Ronald Reagan was just plain fantasy - wrong - never happened.

I had to wonder how a person as brilliant as Rachel could say what she was saying.

I guess even people like her can be victims of bad history - that which flows from one's ideology rather than one's brain and one's experience.

Saigon 1967 Chapter Seven: The Taxi Ride

And then it had become July of 1967.

Jack and I were both commissioned military officers.

We were both defending our country.

We were both in Vietnam.

And we weren’t very far from each other in Vietnam.

You might have thought that that would be adventure enough, but we weren’t satisfied.

You might have thought we would have been able to savor the fact of two close friends being within a distance that allowed us to see one another – in a war zone.

But that was not the case.

In his several trips to Saigon since he had been in at Nha Bey Jack and I had sat around various restaurants and Officers’ Clubs drinking and reminiscing about chukkars claimed and chukkars yet to be gotten. He had described Nha Bey in a way that made it sound like a frontier outpost in 1870’s Kansas. He had told me tales that populated the place with people like the Australian cook who had shown up one day and had asked to go on a combat mission. Supposedly the Australian cook was soon regularly flying and manning the 50 mm Gatling gun.

There were the stories about Jim, the Commander of the RSSZ.

There were the stories about Jack’s cubicle mate, Bob.

Jack and Bob had an agreement that if one was out on a nighttime mission and the other one wasn’t flying, the non flyer would have ice and gin ready immediately on the flyer’s return for a ceremony known as the passing of out. The non flyer would meet the flyer on the landing pad with the initial offering of the ceremony.

It had seemed only natural to Jack that I should go to Nha Bey with him and go with him on a mission and shoot the 50 mm Gatling gun. If an Australian cook could do it, so he reasoned, surely an Air Force officer could do it. That would have made for great stories in a later time, but I didn’t see combat as something I would be very good at.

But I did go to Nha Bey.

That trip to Nha Bey had been a contingency plan for weeks. I usually had Thursdays as a day off. The plan was that Jack would try to schedule some down time from flying and come to Saigon for one of his periodic visits on a Wednesday. We would spend the evening of his visit going to our various haunts and then I would go back to Nha Bey with him the next day. The idea was that once I got there I would probably be taken over by the patriotic desire to fly a combat mission. Or, the default if that didn’t happen was that at least I would be getting a lot closer to the day to day humdrum of the war than I was exposed to in Saigon. When it got dark at Nha Bey the Viet Cong took over outside the wire, and they spent their nights testing the wire’s security and using explosives and gunfire to attempt to gain entrance to the base. It was a nice little game of stasis.

The place I lived in Saigon had two beds. There was mine, and there was that of another lieutenant, named Dale who was a meteorologist. Dale had night duty, so except on his days off we barely saw each other. And he had offered his bed to me for any guests I might have visiting me in Saigon. So Jack had a reliable place to sleep when he was in Saigon. By then I had a complete stereo system set up and a small Sanyo refrigerator. I had all the comforts of home.

There were two Nha Bey buses each day, one coming from in the morning and one going to in the early evening, but before dark. After dark it was best not to be on the road to Nha Bey because it lapsed to the Viet Cong overnight. Even in daylight things could get pretty dicey pretty quickly which was one of the reasons for the bus rather than a constant unscheduled dribble of jeeps going to and from Saigon with each having to provide for its own security. The buses had armed military police aboard. They were the only people allowed to have firearms. Not only weren’t we allowed to bring firearms in the country, people living in combat areas were not allowed to bring their guns to Saigon. Those of us who lived in Saigon just weren’t allowed to have firearms at all. It was thought to project the wrong image – more like a war zone than an advisory mission – to have people running around with firearms in Saigon.

So the planned day had arrived. As frequently happened with Jack and me, we had gotten involved in drinking and storytelling at the Brinks mezzanine bar and we missed the bus. The Brinks mezzanine bar overlooks the street below. It was fairly deep into urban Saigon. Jack had to get back. So he did the obvious. He left me in the mezzanine bar overlooking the street while he went in search of a taxi.

As often happens in that part of the world at that time of the year, by the time he had reached the street a torrential rainstorm had commenced. I could hear his voice over the roar of the rain as he bargained (“bargaining, this is ridiculous; I have never seen a less advantageous bargaining position” I thought to myself) with the Vietnamese driver in the weird pseudo language that we used with the natives. I’m pretty sure that the bargaining point ended up being not an attractively priced fare, but the fact that the driver would even consider driving to Nha Bey at all, as the sun was setting, and the road was slipping back to the Viet Cong. But he agreed to do it.

The taxi was some little bitty, old, probably French, car. Jack sat in back and I sat in front opposite the driver. As soon as we got out of town into the delta or whatever it was that was south of Saigon the driver began to act rather jumpy. And it was getting dark – the sun rises and sets in the tropics very quickly – at an alarming pace. I, of course didn’t have a gun. But neither did Jack. While he had considered not being able to take a gun to Saigon an irritant in his life up to that point, it had not been a major problem as long as the armed bus had been his assumed mode of transportation. In general, the need for a gun in Saigon was not much more than the need for a gun in Los Angeles. But as events were beginning to materialize, the lack of a gun was becoming a bigger deal at an exponential rate of speed. Even I thought it would have been prudent of us to have had side arms.

We had begun muttering to each other, as we progressed down the road, about the rapid decline in the quality of our situation. We were beginning to have doubts about the loyalties of our driver. We did a running estimate of elapsed time and estimated time of arrival, and offset that against our best estimates of the remaining light from the setting sun.

It didn’t look good.

And then the driver stopped the Taxi. And then he got out. He got out with an obvious sense of urgency. He got out quickly and purposefully. And he went to join a group of Vietnamese that had suddenly appeared from somewhere. The light was getting so bad it was difficult to figure where they had come from, but they were there, and so were we.

We both, without even discussing it, felt that we were at that moment at the point where what had been a potential catastrophe, had lost any element of being potential and was in the process of becoming an accomplished fact. Jack muttered something about the lack of a firearm. Then he said something to the effect that the only satisfying part of this mess was going to be killing the taxi driver before we were captured or killed.

In retrospect it was always interesting to me that at that moment, in those circumstances, killing the taxi driver had seemed to me to be both the most rational and most important thing I could do in my short time left. We quickly outlined the plan for manually dispatching the guy. We went over it several times in minute rehearsed detail, each of us with his step by step mutually coordinated role in the killing of the taxi driver. It took almost no time at all to go through it several times.

When the driver returned to the taxi the atmosphere must have been tangibly electric. I was coiled tighter than I had ever been or was ever going to be. I was supposed to have made the first move, as a starting point, and as, we hoped, a successful first strike, followed up by Jack with a finishing maneuver from behind. I must have been less than a full second from making my move. The driver must have felt something, because he said something with a big grin, took out a pack of Lucky Strikes and offered us each one. Then he quickly started the car and drove us the rest of the way to Nha Bey. We never knew what the group of Vietnamese wanted, or how he got us through, or even if there had been a problem. But we got through and I saw Nha Bey with the sun setting. Later in Jack’s and Bob’s cubicle, which had been made by putting two stacked bunks against the window and delineating the area with their 6 foot tall storage lockers at each end of the bunks, we told tales, listened to the intermittent gunshots and occasional explosions of the Viet Cong, and I was initiated into the passing of out ceremony.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Six: The Hunting Trip

To understand most of what follows it is necessary for this pre-Saigon1967 story to be told.

I was home on leave after graduating from OTS and having been commissioned a Second Lieutenant. It had been a never ending round of parties with my fraternity brothers. Jack had been home for the holidays also. He was finishing a year’s leave of absence from college, and from NROTC, working for the State of Oregon as a Civil Engineer.

There was a certain amount of irony in the fact that I was a commissioned officer and he, as yet, was not.

He had been in Navy ROTC his whole college career. He was always going to be a Navy officer. I was always going to be a ne’r-do-well. Somehow events had conspired to cast me in the roll of being slightly Jack’s senior in the great military scheme of things. But he was going to be a pilot so that evened things out and put him back on top.

One evening after Christmas but before New Years a group of my fraternity brothers and I were at my parents’ house where I was staying while on leave. We were drinking beer and doing whatever one did at that kind of gathering. Jack showed up about 10:00. He had said something about possibly dropping by, but it was a fairly vague proposition, so I was surprised to see him, especially that late. After a beer and some small talk he told me we were going bird hunting the next day. He told me to pack warm clothes, like for winter hiking and be ready to leave at 5:00 the next morning. He would supply everything else. I could buy a license once we got over to hunting country.

I had never been hunting. I had never wanted to go hunting. I was planning a lot more beer and conversation before the evening was over, and I wasn’t going to meet anyone for anything at 5:00 in the morning. Besides, I didn’t have any hiking boots. In fact the only shoes I had were loafers.

But jack was insistent, and I became compliant. At 5:00 the next morning I was getting into his car with some warm clothes and wearing a pair of loafers with an extra pair of socks. I wasn’t sure what the extra socks were supposed to accomplish but it had seemed like a good idea. Jack and I and Blaze, his father’s German shorthaired pointer took off toward Central Oregon. I was tired and hung over and totally disinterested in the whole enterprise. Jack was ready to roll and Blaze wanted to know who the goof in loafers was.

A few days prior to this expedition Oregon had been hit by one of those occasionally furious Pacific storms that arrive in November and December. Unlike most of that kind of storm, this one had spared the west side of the mountains but had devastated portions of central and eastern Oregon. That was my one hope. Conditions would be so bad that even a person as unreasonable as Jack would have had to admit that we had to abandon the plan, and I would be home in bed a little later that morning.

But we kept going. We had breakfast in The Dalles where I bought my hunting license and we continued east. We went around one traffic barrier warning of bad road conditions ahead. Jack chose to ignore the warning because we were going to be hunting prior to the area of the bad conditions. By this time the terrain had changed from the heavily wooded Douglas fir rain forest west of the Cascade Mountains to the desert, sagebrush with some scrub Juniper country of Central Oregon. We were getting farther from the main east-west route all the time, driving on a two-lane country road. As we drove Jack did a running commentary about what kind of terrain we were looking for, terrain that would be good habitat for game birds. He would point out a draw and explain how it would be a likely spot to find birds. And he embellished his tutorial with stories about hunting trips he and his father had had in terrain just like that which he had just pointed to. He told about what the birds had done, what the dog had done, how many birds he and his father and Blaze had actually harvested. Even to the non hunter it had begun to get pretty interesting. I kept wondering as we came abreast of each new potential bird place, and then passed it, when we were going to stop and test out the theory.

The weather was also worsening. Even though it was pre-noon it seemed to be getting darker. And it was beginning to spit snowflakes.

Then for no reason obvious to me - the place we were pulling into looked pretty much like every other place we had seen - we stopped. “OK. This is it.” Blaze began to wiggle and whine. Jack got out; I got out; Blaze got out. The sky darkened; the snow stung my face where the wind whipped it. I looked at my loafers. Surely we weren’t really going to do this. Surely we were going to find a town with a decent motel and a decent bar and have a decent day and night and then go home the next morning.

But Jack handed me one of the two guns and a handful of shells. The guns were beautiful little side by side double barrel 20 gauge Winchesters. The shells were medium load number 6 shot. I had never shot a shot gun but was a pretty good shot with a rifle, although I was not a hunter, and I knew and practiced the rules of safety with firearms. The prime rule is never point a gun, even a toy gun, at anything you don’t plan to kill. But making sure the safety is on is also one of the rules. So even though I was a novice hunter we didn’t have to waste a lot of time teaching me how to handle a shotgun.

Jack handed me his gun and went through two of the strands of barb wire fence that kept the cattle in. I handed him my gun and his gun and went through myself. Blaze was already on the other side and heading out on a few preliminary sweeps of the area. Not only hadn’t I ever hunted before, I had never seen a dog hunt. I had some idea about the end game, the “point”, Blaze after all was a pointer, but I had no idea what the process leading up to the point might be; I also didn’t know how fantastically exciting it might be.

The place Jack had chosen to start our hunt looked pretty much like everything else he had pointed out since we had arrived in hunting country. It was a flat area covered with sagebrush and juniper and heading away from and along the axis of the road for as far as you could see. What hadn’t been obvious to me, and may have been obvious to Jack – I never got around to asking – was the fact that, there was a draw once you got into the area and it gradually sloped downhill.

Just as our descent had begun the snow started to get heavier, and borne on one of the numerous biting gusts of wind, it was coming along parallel to the ground. I looked at my loafers; I wondered why I was doing this; I thought of making one last plea for mercy; and then I followed Jack and Blaze down the throat of the draw.

Very quickly what had looked like everything else we had seen as we had driven along became a quite different thing. The place was a significant draw or gully that headed down a hillside. It began to widen and deepen rather quickly, and its end was nowhere in sight. This was going to be a major change of terrain over what it had appeared to be from the road. In fact it already had become different. In addition to the junipers and sage brush there were dense leafless thickets of some kind of 10 foot high scrub brush. And deeper below us it was possible to catch the glint of what appeared to be water. The draw was turning into a little ecological niche with shelter, water, and food probably, for any number of creatures.

Even the wind was much less intense as we got below the crest of the land from which we had descended. Jack didn’t even have to yell to tell me what to do next like he had in the first few moments. We were able to talk at a normal conversational volume level.

Suddenly Blaze started acting oddly, at least from my inexperienced viewpoint. His tail was wagging – not really the right word, thrashing would be more like it – frantically and he was casting around in wide overlapping circles. He was up the right side of the draw; he was down in the bottom; he was across and up the other side, and then back. All of this was happening at an unbelievable pace. “Birds have been here” said Jack.

As if it were scripted two things happened immediately after Jack uttered those rather electrifying – to me - words. A huge gust of wind managed to find its way down to us, bringing a large puff of horizontal snow, filling the draw in a kind of smoky, foggy gloom. Just behind that foggy gloom, looking more like phantom spirits than what they were, followed a flock of about a dozen chukkars. It took a moment for me to realize what I had seen, or even that I had seen anything. Even when I realized what I had seen I didn’t know what, if anything, to do about it. In any event, they had disappeared over the shoulder of the bend in the draw.

Jack did know what to do though. “Get going” he said, charging down the hill and yelling for Blaze. I caught up with him, and as we pressed forward as rapidly as we could he filled me in. “I didn’t see this, but I know that they flipped over that little hump to our right and landed somewhere in there. Blaze will be tracking them, but they’re going to be air-washed of most of their scent, so it probably will take him some time to find them.”

We knew almost immediately that it hadn’t taken Blaze long at all, because almost immediately his casting and tail thrashing became more intense but more controlled. He had slowed from a semi-random gallop to a straight ahead crouching trot, to a creep and to a statue like stop. He had located the birds.

Chukkars and their cousins Hungarian Partridge, I learned from this trip, and many subsequent trips don’t play by any of the classic rules of pointing dog hunting, starting with the fact that they don’t hold to the point. They also don’t fly out of a point; they run; and they are fast. So while Blaze was locked over the scent of the birds, the birds were 50 yards gone and gaining speed toward being over the next rise. Jack yelled “shoot”. I yelled “what?” He repeated himself. I said “they’re not flying”. He looked at me with disgust and yelled something about playing by their rules and pulled off a shot, and one of the retreating birds did a cartwheel.

I had assumed that in addition to three given factors: the weather being a nightmare, my being still mildly hung-over and my suffering from a lack of adequate sleep, the possibility of actually finding anything to legally shoot had existed only in the realm of myth and fantasy, so I had not really actively considered that I would need to shoot the gun. It had just been a necessary piece of impedimenta that I had needed to carry in some sort of act of loyalty to Jack. I had assumed that, after hours of futile traipsing, I would have been able to put the gun down and have a normal evening, with dinner and drinks, having not even taken the safety off.

In spite of that it had been true that Jack was such a compelling Pied Piper that I had experienced moments of letting myself lapse into that realm of myth and fantasy by considering briefly how one shot a gun at an airborne, departing target, but I had kept putting those thoughts out of my mind. And I certainly had not given any consideration to how I would have shot at something running along the ground.

Suddenly I was a few chukkar strides away from being made to look like a fool on one of two counts. I was either going to fumble around with the gun and the birds were going to disappear over the rise like the ghosts I had initially thought them to be, or I was going to blow the top off the rise with a load of number six bird shot. That few moments became my first experience with dramatic movie black and white slow action mode.

As that phenomenon descended upon me, I saw several birds a stride or two from being gone. I lifted the gun to my shoulder, clicking off the safety in the process. I made the mental observation that this was not going to be like what I had imagined shooting a gun at a receding, airborne target would be. That, I had been told, required both eyes to be open; this was going to be like shooting a rifle at a paper target. I closed one eye, drew a bead and squeezed. And a bird did a cartwheel. I had actually gotten my first game bird. Either I had entered the realm of myth and fantasy, or it was actually possible for normal everyday people and a good dog to hunt and harvest game birds. Whichever it was, I was exhilarated.

We actually ended up getting three birds in that first skirmish of the trip. Before the trip was over Jack and I had gotten several others, all shot on the wing.

This three day adventure had succeeded in finishing out the structure of a friendship that had started with Latin home work, had grown with sea gull hinting in the fog, and had survived most of the four years of college life at different colleges. On account of that finishing out, life was to be made much more interesting due to adventures that would occur here and there and hither and yon around the world for the next twenty years. And none of them would have ever happened without their progenitor: the great Central Oregon chukkar hunt of 1964.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Four: Nha Bey

My friend Jack had come to Saigon from Nha Bey, a Navy Huey base 20 miles or so south of Saigon. It was his “day off”. Jack flew pretty much anything, but his prime mission at Nha Bey was to fly Huey gunships. Before he finished his tour he had flown so many missions that he had more oak leaf clusters than could be fitted on his Air Medal Ribbon. And he was only shot down three times. And he never lost a crew member.

Nha Bey was a sand spit protruding into the water somewhere near where the Saigon River became one with the Delta. The Delta was, from a military viewpoint, an anomaly. It wasn’t dry land. It wasn’t sea or even a particularly navigable inland water way. It wasn’t coastline because it was inland. It was a place from which an unknown but certainly significant number of “the enemy” conducted hostile activities and carried those hostilities into drier parts of the country. They lived there as amphibious creatures of the Delta.

In the American military nobody really wanted the Delta. But none of the services wanted to give up any turf, no matter how unpromising it might be from a career advancement viewpoint.

So the delta got divided up.

That meant that one lacked for an opportunity to take the best possible career advantage from “the only war we had”. No one wanted the Delta, but no one was willing to give it up. So everybody got it, or got pieces of it. To keep that assignment from being more of a goat rodeo than most shared turf military assignments typically were, the whole thing was coordinated by the Commander of the Rungsat Special Strike Zone. I never knew how to spell “Rungsat” and never knew if it was an acronym or an allusion to some obscure deity. I am spelling it here as I heard it pronounced at the time.

The commander of the Rungsat Special Strike Zone was a Navy Ensign who was housed at Nha Bey. Even a fairly uninformed person would probably wonder why the commander of a multi service operations area would be the most junior of officers. Jack and I wondered that also. The only answer we could figure out was (and why was it a Navy Officer) that in Navy Personnel the billet had come up, and since no one had ever heard of the Rungsat they had assigned the first name they could get: a junior officer graduating from Air Intelligence School at Lowry AFB in Denver. Lowry trained both Air Force and Navy officers to be Air Intelligence officers.

The Commander of the Rungsat Special Strike Zone was named Jim. Jim was something of an entrepreneur in the way he approached the job of Commander RSSZ, and that was good. It was good because, since no one knew what the Zone was when he got the assignment, there were no directives or standard operating procedures. If there had been directives and standard operating procedures nothing much would ever have happened. A lesser man confronted with the same set of circumstances might have gone catatonic – I would have, for example. But Jim just came in and started inventing things as he went along. He appeared to invent things on the basis of their entertainment value. By the time I got to Nha Bey the RSSZ could be described as a caliphate, albeit a military one, with Jim as the Caliph.

On the evening that I first met Jim he was in a room full of mainly Vietnamese, presumably mostly on our side, and a few American enlisted men from various branches of the military. They were all treating Jim like something of an overlord. Except for the modern electronics and lighting it could have been in a castle in 13th century France.

I was introduced and Jim briefed me (since I was a fellow Air Intelligence Officer and Lowry graduate) on the composition of his command, its mission, as he perceived it and the meaning of the various blinking multi-colored lights on the huge room-dominating map in front of which he stood.

“For example, if we got word of hostile activity here” and he pointed with his pre laser pointer era wooden pointer at one of the blinking lights, “I would call F100s out of Ton Son Nhut”. And he nodded to one of his Vietnamese vassals. The vassal had telecom contact of some kind with something because almost immediately after his speaking into a microphone the air above us was split with high speed, low flying jet aircraft. Moments later the blinking light turned red and stopped blinking. I was dazzled.

Not long after this encounter Jim was disappeared and replaced with a Navy Commander.

The sand spit upon which the Nha Bey base resided had not been a natural phenomenon. The navy had come up the river, or delta with some kind of large barge with a giant vacuum cleaner like device. With this device and a few weeks work the spit had appeared. The first thing the Navy did was build a bakery.

In my time in Vietnam one of the most interesting things I learned was the essential difference between the military services. When the Army opened a new base, such as the one at the outskirts of Ton Son Nhut, the first thing they did was bulldoze up all the grass and vegetation and kind of redistribute it evenly back around, just no longer living, or in viable condition. Then they spent as long as it took to wet the area down with giant hoses until the new camp area became a sea of mud. Then they set up their tents. The Air Force would stake out a huge area, build a landing strip so planes could bring in what was needed to do the rest of the building. As soon as the planes began to appear with the necessary building material, the first building built was a BX - a Base Exchange. The BX’s in Vietnam I realized later in life were the inspiration for Wal-Mart. The Navy on the few occasions when they built a land base first built a bakery. The Navy was obviously the most civilized of the services.

My friend Jack had come to Saigon from Nha Bey where there was a bakery.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Five: Captain Couchon

I had preceded Jack in Vietnam by several months. I had arrived in November just before Thanksgiving, and he arrived sometime in April. By the time he arrived I had acquired a deep cynicism about the “war effort” as the endeavor was called by the professional military cadre who were conducting it. I don’t remember all the events that contributed to my desire to get by with as little involvement as possible, or my deep seated belief that on a scale of 1 to 10 for relevance to the well-being of the United States, Vietnam and its namesake war were perhaps below zero, but one does stand out.

It was the day I showed up to wherever it was that officers went to start processing in, and being assigned duty. The Sergeant at the reception desk was of a species that I had already in my short time in country discovered to be dominant. Everything he said or did was designed to reinforce for himself, and to externalize for all newcomers his elite status in the informal - but more important than the formal - hierarchy of DEROS. The species also had a manner of speech that they all shared. Among other things it included the incessant sneered Vietnamese phrase “sing loy”. How it was spelled I was never to know, perhaps because I was never to care. It supposedly meant “sorry ‘bout that”. It was an extremely clever, so the phrase-utilizing species thought, allusion to the catchphrase from the then popular TV show “Get Smart”.

After enduring the Sergeant for several minutes I was passed on to his superior, a Captain. The Captain indulged in a more subtle and malicious version of DEROS superiority. Everything he said was lightheartedly morose. You knew from his banter that things were “bad now and going downhill at alarming speed, but what the hell; I get out of here pretty soon; that should make you pretty happy, seeing a fellow officer escape this nightmare, right Lieutenant?”

It was becoming grindingly depressing being in his presence when he delivered the coup de grace. “We’ll see if we can’t find something for you to do” he said.

I hadn’t volunteered for Vietnam. If one had any aspirations for an Air Force career, one put in one’s personnel records that one volunteered for Vietnam service as soon as possible. In my case that addition to my records would have occurred at Cannon. I hadn’t thought that I had any career aspirations, although even if I had I wouldn’t have volunteered. Volunteering looked too much like tempting fate. Being in the military had meant that going to Vietnam was inevitable. It seemed best to me to let that inevitability run its own unfettered course.

Having passed through the gate from civilian life to military life had changed at some levels my pre-military perspectives. The inevitability of Vietnamese service wasn’t a problem for me; it wasn’t something that I felt burdened with; it wasn’t something that I had any inclination to try to avoid. I just didn’t think tempting fate by volunteering made any sense.

My father fought in the final stages of World War Two in Czechoslovakia. And millions of other Americans had also fought in various parts of the world starting in 1941, or before in the case of those who had joined RAF. And the world was different than it would have been if they had not fought, and I really believed that the world was a vastly better place as a result of their fighting than it would have been if they hadn’t fought. I really believed that it was my turn. I would have preferred to have had a world free of the obligation to go fight somewhere – a world where I could have continued singing and telling jokes with Joe and Dave in a youthful attempt at trying to be something that I had dreamed of for years - but that wasn’t the way the world was. It was clearly my turn. And once the wheels had turned in whatever way they were going to turn and I had gotten my orders to go I would go with, fear, yes, but shored by the certainty and the belief that nothing could abrogate the debt I owed to my father and his generation.

The thing I had only begun to have the faintest inkling of, as I looked at this sardonic, grinning, paunchy captain - 250 pounds of man stuffed into a 190 pound pair of khaki 1505s - was that this war might be different. This war might be an option, or, worse, a mistake. This war might have no real purpose. It didn’t seem to have had any real beginning and it might never have any real end. It just might be, had been, was and always would be. In Latin that description would have sounded like a prayer we Catholics called an ejaculation.

And this captain, this pig who was my official point of entry into the war, was going to “see if we can’t find something for you to do”. I was thousands of miles away from anything I cared about, a wife, two sons, a mother and father and two sisters and various old girl friends, fraternity brothers, teachers and friends; and Captain Cochon was going to “see if we can’t find something for you to do”.

Something must just have snapped. I hadn’t realized at the point of its occurrence, but over time I recognized that something had snapped sometime, and with time and thought I had realized when it must have occurred.

I made a Scarlet O’Hara-like vow to myself the moment that the words “see if we can’t find something for you to do” left his mouth. No matter what happened from that point on they weren’t going to get me to care. And, secondly, I was going to take as long to process in as I could make it take. I already had sized things up such that I figured I could make it take several months. With any luck I might complete in-processing and just commence out-processing when my DEROS became mature.

I left Captain Cochon and checked into the bar at the Ton Son Nhut Officers’ club. I figured that I could sit there and drink and take meals during working hours and go home to my off base hovel just like the patriotic, non-malingerers. The bar at the club had the additional advantage that sooner or later one would see everyone one had ever known in the military. The club butted up to the airfield, and in its mezzanine bar you could watch F4’s take off vertically. It must have been late November 1966 when I made that plan for my life in Saigon.

I spent the next two or three weeks at the Officers’ Club, drinking, taking meals and eluding any more finality to processing in. A combination of two things brought my tenure at the club to a close. I had begun to get bored was the main thing. The other thing was that Ron, a recent Academy graduate, and Ray, a first Lieutenant ROTC product, both of whom I had gotten to know in my tenure at the club, had told me on more than one occasion that things like what I was doing just weren’t done. We had to do our jobs; we were after all, officers. Anything worth doing was worth was worth doing well (an obviously classic example of begging the question). And on and on they went.

They shamed me into buckling.

Actually Ron turned out to be a really good guy, and over time we became fairly good friends. Ray on the other hand was one of those people that does the opposite of grow on you. He was the first person to whom I assigned the descriptor “endeavorous”. He remained ever after in my memory as the archetype of that species. He was a little like the lieutenant in Good Morning Vietnam.

In any event my plan to spend my tour of duty at the Ton Son Nhut Officers’ Club lasted about three weeks. It had surely been my finest hour in the war effort.