Thanksgiving: I’m wandering the city streets outside the sprawling Air Force base. A passing couple invite me to their home for the holiday meal. It will be the last decent food I will have for quite some time.
The next morning, we new men march to an Army warehouse crammed with military gear. The stagnant air smells of leather and nylon and new cotton fabric. Here, we’re issued jungle boots, tropical fatigues, pistol belts, plastic canteens, socks, underwear, towels. We pack our dress uniforms into cardboard boxes, to be shipped home. We fill out forms in triplicate. Eat hot chow slopped onto metal trays. Try to forget tomorrow.
At 2AM, we are rousted and marched to an enormous empty hanger. The dim air shakes with the sound of two hundred boots upon the gray cement floor. We are told to break formation, to settle in, to wait.
Immediately, men scramble to the double deck bunks, which are lined up like covered wagons on one side of the vast empty hall, or lie on the floor, their fat duffel bags, filled with their fate, doubling as pillows. Through the twilight hours, men place final calls on a cluster of payphones. We are drowsy, excited, unable to sleep.
Hours pass. In the distance, the throttling roar of engines reversed, the diminished sound edging forward; at last, the large thing halts outside. Like movie theater curtains, the immense hanger doors glide apart, revealing an immense white jet. A thirty foot high staircase is stationed just below the forward hatch.
Wide awake, we are unprepared for what comes next. One by one, two hundred men, some in faded tropical fatigues and boonie hats, others in caps and khakis, emerge from the plane, descend the metal steps, enter the hanger. Silent, they look straight ahead, as if we are not present. Who are these strange men? What do they know? What are they want? None of us speak as the mute parade marches past, disappearing into the morning light. Is that who we are a year from now? Is that it?
Eagerly, up the metal steps we go. For the first hour, we talk and joke, ogle the stewardesses who traverse the aisles, handing out salty snacks, cold beers, small bottles of hard liquor. By the fifth of fifteen hours, we are curled or slumped or sprawled in our seats, and the jet is deathly quiet.
Hours, or is it days later, the tedious hum of the landing gear, unfolding, fills the cabin. Far below, save for many small dark circles, the earth is green, everywhere green. At five hundred feet, amidst a patchwork of emerald fields, the dots are bomb craters, where nothing grows.
As we bank right, I see the long black ribbon of the military runway, and there, on a graceful green hill, four long rows of neatly spaced single bunks; beneath the clean white sheets, the silhouettes of men who must be sleeping.
The captain’s voice crackles over the intercom. “Attention all personnel. After landing, we will not stop, but continue forward at slow speed.”
The captain says when the exit hatch opens, we must quickly descend. We must run for the bunkers.
“MP’s will guide you. Obey the MPs.”
One by one, like frightened horses, we run pell-mell into the living wall of endless heat, into the screaming eyes of MPs who shout and point and hurry us on. “This way! This way!” they holler, and we sprint and jump into the waist high trenches, which are topped with sturdy sandbags painted ghostly white.
“Stay down! Stay down!” they are screaming.
We are in Bien Hoa, aka Rocket City, due to frequent enemy attacks. Soon, the men on the hill will be taken to Graves Registration, the place where they store the dead.
The following day, a river of red dust swirls behind the green buses which deliver us to grim barracks whose walls are doubled with sandbags and barrels packed with sand. For no apparent reason, we exchange our new gear for identical new gear. It is done quickly, quickly, without explanation.
After morning roll call, we replacements are ordered to police the area, to collect cigarette butts, bottle caps, chewing gum wrappers, anything that does not belong on the neatly furrowed ground. Afterward, we are hustled by Asian women in black pants and conical hats who offer to peg our ill fitting new clothes, and to monogram them with our last names. Willingly, we spend our GI money; later discover the uniforms have been whisked to hardened combat troops in need of fresh clothes.
On the fifth day at the replacement center, a thief, man or woman I do not know, steals a loving gift, my grandfather’s gold watch, from a shower stall. That afternoon I’m assigned to the First Cavalry, and to three days of Sky Trooper school. One by one, we climb up, up the tall wooden ladder, repel eighty feet from the tower. Seated in bleachers, we are issued the Sky Trooper’s Prayer. The wallet-sized card conveys god’s holy blessing. It preaches Sky Troopers are invincible. Sky Troopers kill Viet Cong. But who are the Viet Cong? What do they look like? What do they want?
The following week, I’m the lone passenger on a chopper to Quan Loi. Will VC shoot us down? I’m excited, frightened, invigorated.
At the battalion aid station, an old timer says, “Forget everything you learned at Fort Sam.”
In Texas, we aspiring medics learned to take oral and rectal temperatures, to tie perfect cravats, to apply fresh cotton bandages to smiling volunteers, who willing lay themselves down upon clean canvas litters.
I’m given a well worn canvas aid bag stuffed with pill bottles, tubes of tropical ointment. The old timer instructs me on the use of antihistamines, antibiotics, antifungals. Here is a green bottle of surgical soap; here are surgical scissors; a clear bottle of orange tinted antiseptic. Here are large and small antimalarial pills, tiny antidiahrreals, rolls of paper tape, a supply of four by four cotton bandages wrapped in thick transparent plastic. A half dozen morphine syrettes.
“Try not to lose those,” he winks.
Later I will stuff the bandages in an empty Claymore bag, which loops around my body for easy reach. After firefights, I will not fill out the clumsy manila casualty tags with their endless small boxes and pointy twists of copper wire.
A sergeant in charge of weapons shows me pornography. Why does he do that? It happened at Bien Hoa too. In an air conditioned Quonset hut, one by one, we FNGs talk with bored clerks, who ask us silly questions, stamp out dog tags, type out orders.
“No pref,” I say.
But my clerk and I chat about Broadway shows, books and music.
He asks, “Would you like me to change your orders and send you home?”
I follow Bill, his name is Bill, outside to a secluded spot. In the thick morning heat, Bill whispers, “Let me suck you off. Let me do that. I’ll change your orders. Let me do it.”
I’m nineteen. Naively, I say, “No.”
Now, in Quan Loi, the frustrated sergeant takes a battered M16 from a rack of twenty and hands it to me..
“You’ll get more on Compton,” he says, tosses me two empty clips, then ushers me out of the hooch.
What is Compton? Where is it?
The next morning, five combat medics walk me to the edge of the busy airstrip. Here, where the bamboo has not been cut back, no one can hear or see us. One man cracks my M16 in half, takes a drag on a fat joint, and blows smoke down the barrel, directly into my mouth. Once, twice, three times, and I’m stoned for hours, hating the anxious daze, hating it. Two days later, I’m flown to LZ Compton.
Where Quan Loi is a large support base staffed with thousands of men, in dozens of units, spread across a haunting rubber plantation, Compton is a sweltering, desolate 100 meter circle carved from the jungle in the middle of nowhere. The outer perimeter is ringed with concertina wire and no-man’s land, which is mined with Claymore’s and oil drums filled with jellied fuel. Foo gas, they call it. Reinforced bunkers are spaced fifty meters apart. Inside the perimeter, the base is home to cannon and mortar crews, a tented chow hall, the underground command center, a dug-in aid station, an ammo dump.
In dry season, Compton is a grim, merciless place of dust and heat and menial labor. In monsoon, we are forever cold, wet, spangled with mud. Monsoon means rats. Means maggots. In dry season or wet, day after day, one hundred men live and toil on Compton, half of them grunts, in from patrol, here to pull guard.
I shake hands with the medic who will board the chopper headed back to Quan Loi, and from there, fly home.
“So long, Doc,” say the men of third platoon.
The departing medic waves one last time, then he is gone.
In short order I meet Larry Roy, who is seventeen and loves to play golf. From Hawaii, here is smiling, dark complected Rudy. A cunning and nervous man named Gooch. Peering out from a bunker, an unhappy fellow with a droopy mustache nods hello. Wilson, the radio telephone operator from Detroit, takes me under his wing.
“Get you some ammo and extra clips,” he says. “And canteens too. Ten ought to do it.” He pauses, then asks, “Hey, Doc, you want some grenades?”
In two months, a lifer wearing shined boots and clean fatigues, will hand me a chrome-plated forty-five. “I bet you can use this,” he will say. I carry the weapon for six months, then reluctantly hand it to my replacement, an unfit man who will botch a medivac, and two of my friends, hauled upside down, will hemorrhage and die. “Sure,” I will tell him, “Thanks much.”
Gary Williams, an intense, dark-haired man from Kingsport, Tennessee, says “Howdy, Doc,” vigorously shakes my hand, then returns to reading his mud-stained letter.
Wilson points to a man in the distance. “That there is Carrot Top. Don’t tell him I said that.”
I trudge fifty meters to the red-haired lieutenant, who looks up from his artful topo map. “Welcome aboard,” he says. Then, as if for the hundredth time, he asks, “Hey, Doc, where you from?”
On the third day of my first patrol, we run to the spot where second platoon has pinned down three Viet Cong. In broad daylight, from twenty meters, GIs take potshots at young men whose legs have been torn off by Claymores. As the finals shots ring out, as the desperate screams subside, I drop to one knee, weeping. How can they do this? How can they do it? Yet in two months I will be much the same.
In ten years, sorrow will overtake me. In twenty, by startling luck, I will meet the enemy; when we embrace, I will weep the deepest tears of my life. But when first home, day after day, I will care only for third platoon, and each night, every night, lying down in the killing heat, I will curse you, love you, Vietnam, Vietnam.