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.

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