13: The River
<< 12: NHA BE || 14: Waterborne Ambush >>
I got to the dock at 6:05. I was five minutes late, but fortunately the Vietnamese weren’t ready yet. Ski was obviously antsy. He was cussin’ like he was the last sailor in line at a Tijuana whorehouse.
“Hurry up, people! Come on! What’s the god-damn hold up?”
“Hey, man. Sorry I’m late.”
“You’re lucky the gooks ain’t ready. God-damn little people! They just don’t take this shit seriously! Here ... hand me your shit.”
I dropped my seabag on the deck and Ski grabbed it and stowed it against the left gunnel. Then I handed him my M-14. He checked to make sure it that wasn’t loaded and then stuffed it behind the seabag.
“Hey, Ski ...”
“What day is it?”
“What day is it ... you know ... Monday, Tuesday ...”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know the date?”
“Day? Date? Why you wanna know that shit?”
“I don’t know.”
“Early, middle or late?”
“What-the-fuck difference does that make? It’s April!”
“Now that you mention it, no.”
I quickly concluded that time wasn’t just an enigma at the piers. It was an enigma in the Delta, too.
There were four boats preparing to get underway. Two boats were unattended, their crews were off duty. The crews on the other four boats were securing their gear, they’d just returned from night ambush operations just moments before.
The Vietnamese that crewed the four boats that were preparing to go out still weren’t moving fast enough to suit Ski and he started cussing them again.
“Come on, people! Get the god-damn-fuckin’ lead out!”
“Did you hear about Apollo 13?”
“I ain’t got time for that shit.”
“They were on their way to the moon and there was an explosion on the spacecraft. They’re stuck up there, and Houston don’t know whether they can get ‘em back or not.”
Ski stopped what he was doing. The Vietnamese did, too. They all just stared at me for a moment. Their stares were haunting, like they were waiting for me to give them more information; information I couldn’t give; information I didn’t know.
“That’s all you know?”
Nobody said anything for moment. Then, slowly, they all began to look skyward. They were looking for the moon. It was early morning, the sun was just beginning to break over the horizon to the east and the moon wasn’t visible. After a long, clumsy pause, Ski broke the silence.
“Fuck it! They’re dead meat! Ain’t nothin’ we can do for ‘em, that’s for damn sure! Come on, people! Let’s go!”
It took another ten to fifteen minutes for the Vietnamese to finish stowing the cokes, beer, ammo and C-rations that would be needed on the patrol. While they were finishing up, with Ski yelling at them periodically, he scrounged up a flak jacket and a helmet and handed them to me.
“Here, Guns. Put the flak jacket on now and keep the helmet close by in case you need it. They’re uncomfortable as hell, but if we step in some shit, you’ll be damn glad to have ‘em.”
Ski put on his flak jacket and placed his helmet on the deck next to the right gunnel.
The Vietnamese were a motley looking group. There were three of them on our boat; one in the front .50 gun tub, one in the coxswain’s flat next to Ski, and one to man the .50 on the pedestal mount aft. One of them - the guy standing next to Ski - was decked out just like we were. He was wearing green fatigues, jungle boots and a flak jacket. But the other two were just wearing shorts and flip flops; no shirt, no flak jacket and no boots. I immediately thought that that was strange, and I wondered why Ski didn’t jump ‘em about it.
The four Vietnamese manning our cover boat, and the eight manning the other two boats that were preparing to leave, were similarly attired. Only the boat captain on our cover boat was wearing fatigues, boots and a flak jacket. The other eleven were wearing shorts and sandals, and only one of them was wearing a shirt - a white, GI-issue T-shirt that was so worn it was coming apart at the neck, midriff and shoulders.
There seemed to be a guy missing, too. When we’d gone up-river the day before there had been four Vietnamese on our boat. Now there were only three.
“Hey, Ski. You missin’ a man?”
“Yea. The little fucker’s wife showed up last night and he sent word by the others that he ain’t feelin’ too good this mornin’.”
“His wife showed up?”
“Hell yea! They do this shit all the time. The ARVN navy assigns these guys to RPG units close to their homes. They figure that’s a wise move, that they know the rivers in their own backyard. Sounds good on paper, but it’s a major screw-up. Bein’ this close to home, they like to sneak off and see their old ladies every chance they get.”
I laughed. Ski laughed, too, and what he said next was even funnier.
“Hell. One time two boats came in off a night patrol and the crews all had their families with ‘em. There were sixteen on one boat, nineteen on the other, and besides their wives and kids, they had goats, chickens, pigs and ducks!”
“Yea! I’m tellin’ ya! You gotta watch these little motherfuckers ... every fuckin’ minute!”
Ski and I both started laughing. The laughter was subdued, it wasn’t raucous, but I noticed immediately that the Vietnamese weren’t laughing. Some of them were grinning those shit-eatin’ grins, but none of them were laughing.
“You don’t feel uncomfortable goin’ out a man short?”
“A man short? What-the-fuck you talkin’ about? You’re still goin’, ain’t ya’?”
He stared at me for a moment, winked and smiled, then he went over to a canvas bag and opened it. He took out a new, black beret and handed it to me.
“Here. Put this on.”
“Look at the loop on the back.”
“Yea, I was just noticing it. It hasn’t been cut.”
“No. And it won’t be unless we hit some shit. You got me?”
“And if we don’t run into no shit, I better not run into yo’ ass later and see that it’s been cut. You understand me?”
“A lot of support sailors buy berets from vendors on the streets in Saigon, and they cut the loops themselves. God-damn assholes! They’re tryin’ to look like somethin’ they ain’t! They’re tryin’ to be somethin’ they ain’t! We don’t put up with that shit! Whenever we used to run into some asshole who did that, or some asshole we even THOUGHT did that, we beat the shit out of him! You understand?”
A moment or two later we were finally ready to pull out. All four boats untied from the dock and headed inland - up-river - at a slow, deliberate pace. It had been my impression that Ski was just taking out a two-boat patrol. As the docks at Nha Be disappeared from view, I prompted Ski on the matter.
“I thought we were just gonna be a two-boat patrol.”
“But there are four boats?”
“The other two are day-timin’ on the main channel here; a Market Time op. We’re goin’ up and catchin’ a canal over to the Vam Co Tay.”
“And the others all just came in off a night op?”
“Yea. All but the crew that’s off.”
“You seem to run more night ops than days. Is that right?”
“Don’t much happen in the daytime. We own the place during the day, but it’s a different story at night.”
“The cold, hard truth?”
“The rivers belong to Charlie at night. If it’s a waterway, whatever the description - canal, river, estuary, stream - it’s Charlie’s at night. If it’s wet, and big enough to put a boat in, it’s Indian Country!”
“Yea! Cowboys and Indians! Biet?”
There was a brief moment of silence, and in that quiet moment I thought about the irony of what Ski’d just said. He’d referred to us and the Vietcong as cowboys and Indians. Back home when I was a kid, I used to watch cowboy TV shows and go and see Gene Autry at the movies on weekends. In the TV shows and the movies, the good guys always wore white hats. Roy Rogers wore a white hat; Gene Autry wore a white hat. But the bad guys always wore black hats. I turned and looked at Ski ... at the black beret on his head ... and wondered for a moment if we might not, indeed, be the bad guys in this fight.
Suddenly, but calmly, Ski broke the silence.
“All right, Le. You and Guns need to mount those .60s.”
Le, our Vietnamese boat captain, stepped into the opening of a compartment in the for-ward part of the craft on the right-hand side of the coxswain’s flat. A moment or two later, he re-appeared with two M-60 machine guns. He handed one to me and I watched intently as he mounted his on a mounting rod on the right side of the craft. There was an identical rod on the left side, so I copied every move Le made and mounted my weapon as well.
The M-60 mounting rods were atop two, large, heavy-gauge deflecting shields on each side of the boat. The deflecting shields (called splinter shields) seemed to be designed to offer protection to the operators of the M-60s as well as the coxswain of the boat.
Once the weapons were mounted, Le handed me a can of M-60 ammo. I watched as he raised the cover on his weapon and placed the belt in position. Again, I copied his actions. I lifted the cover and placed my belt in position. When the ammo was in place, Le turned and asked Ski if he wanted us to lock and load.
“Hell yea! Load ‘em up!”
Nobody said much for the next ten to fifteen minutes. The run up-river was scary. It was still dark and the crews on all four boats seemed to be overly alert and cautious. Then, suddenly, the sun began to come up and the eastern sky turned a dark, rusty orange.
Sometime later, when the sun was clearly visible on the horizon, two sampans came into view just as we came around a bend in the river.
“All right, people. Stand by.”
Suddenly, there was a gosh-awful wailing noise. It scared the living daylights out of me. No one had told me that the boats had sirens on them, and Ski had activated the one on our boat. The siren was a signal that the occupants of the sampans understood well. Both stopped dead in the water and the Vietnamese onboard began reaching for their papers.
As our boat pulled alongside the first sampan, our cover boat positioned itself so that it had a clear field of fire in case the occupants of either craft tried anything. The other two PBRs moved up-river a hundred yards or so and idled their engines. The Vietnamese on our rear .50 tossed one of the Vietnamese in the sampan a thin rope. The crew member in our front gun tub did the same. The two Vietnamese civilians seemed to know the drill. They held the ropes in their hands - keeping them taught - so that the sampan stayed snug alongside the PBR. Ski’s counterpart, the Vietnamese boat captain on our boat, then boarded the vessel and began checking each passenger’s identity papers. When he’d finished doing that, he turned and asked Ski if he wanted him to check their cargo, too.
“What are you askin’ me for? You’re the god-damn boat captain! I’m just along for the ride! What would you do if I weren’t here?”
The boat captain didn’t say anything, he just smiled one of those ‘shit-eatin’ grins and shrugged his shoulders. When he did that, Ski lost his temper.
“Geez! Get back on the god-damn boat!”
Ski turned and looked at me as he vented his frustration.
“God-damn it! This is Mickey Mouse god-damn bullshit! We might as well be on Mike Fink’s riverboat ride at Disneyland! Jesus H. mother-lovin’ Christ!”
The boat captain climbed back on the boat and Ski yelled at the Vietnamese in the sampan to let go of the ropes. One of them did, but the other one didn’t.
“Let go of the rope, asshole!”
The Vietnamese that was still holding the rope was an elderly gentleman and was probably hard-of-hearing. Ski yelled at him to drop the rope again and when he didn’t, Ski gunned the engine. A second or two later, the old Vietnamese gentleman was treading water. Ski seemed to be totally oblivious to what had just happened, but the Vietnamese in the sampans were furious. I could see and hear one of them yelling insults at us as we continued up-river.
“Ding da dow! You ding da dow! Du mamie, du jamie, du you!”
I knew just enough Vietnamese to know what he was saying. Ding da dow was Vietnamese for ‘you’re crazy’, du was the Vietnamese equivalent of fuck, mamie was slang for mother and jamie was slang for sister. After he’d yelled out that he thought Ski was crazy, he yelled ‘fuck your mother, fuck your sister and fuck you!’
A short time later a canal came into view. Just as we reached the canal, Ski throttled back on the engines. The coxswain on our cover boat did the same and we waved at the crew members on the other two craft as they passed us and continued up-river. Ski gave a hand signal to the coxswain on the other boat and then turned our craft and entered the narrow waterway. The cover boat followed.
Twenty or thirty minutes later, as the sun continued to climb in the eastern sky, the canal emptied into another waterway, and then into the Vam Co Tay river.
“Here you go, Guns. You’re almost home. The mobile base is just right up the river here.”
“Almost home? You ain’t droppin’ me off, are ya’?”
“No. But we’re gonna be stoppin’ there. I wanna top off the tanks.”
“Top off the tanks?”
“Didn’t we top ‘em off before we left Nha Be?”
“So why do we need to top ‘em off again?”
Ski gave me a funny look. Then he answered me with an incredulous grin on his face.
“‘Cause we can.”
As we made our way up the Vam Co Tay I marveled at how beautiful the scenery was. It was sometime in April - I was guessing it was the middle of the month - and the sky was absolutely gorgeous. The foliage on the banks was a myriad of greenish colors with just the hint of yellow mixed in, and the water was ocean blue. The color of the water surprised me; I hadn’t expected the river to be bluish in color, I’d expected it to be green or brown. The whole scene had an hypnotic effect on me. I became totally disarmed. I forgot where I was for a moment and was really enjoying the ride.
As we continued up-river toward Tan An I started thinking about the water. Why was the water so blue? I’d grown up in a river town. Back home, the Chattahoochee river marked the boundary between Columbus, Georgia and Phenix City, Alabama. I’d spent many a weekend as a teenager water-skiing on the backwaters of the Chattahoochee just above Lake Oliver. The Chattahoochee was always either a dark green or a murky brown. In fact, almost every river I’d ever seen had been either green or brown. So why was the Vam Co Tay different? Why were its waters a beautiful ocean blue? Just as I was about to ask Ski that question, another sampan came into view.
“OK, people. Let’s see what we got.”
Ski throttled down on the controls. The coxswain on the cover boat did the same. Ski hit the siren again and we slowly and cautiously approached the craft. The cover boat positioned itself so that it had a clear line of fire, and just like before, the crew member on the back .50 threw a rope to one of the Vietnamese. The man in the front gun tub did the same. The Vietnamese on this sampan knew the drill, too. The two that caught the ropes pulled them taught and Le boarded the craft and started checking identity papers. As soon as Le boarded, one of the occupants, an old Vietnamese woman, began talking. She was speaking Vietnamese and she kept saying the same phrases over and over and over again. She seemed to be really nervous, and I was curious as to what she was saying.
“Hey, Ski. What’s the old lady sayin’?”
“Best I can tell she’s tellin’ everybody to smile, to be friendly and to do whatever Le tells ‘em to do.”
I looked at the other occupants. I watched them the whole time Le was aboard, and sure enough, they did whatever he asked them to do, and they did it with a smile and a friendly demeanor.
When Le finished checking the identity papers he turned and looked at Ski. For a moment I thought he was going to ask him if he should check the cargo - just like he’d done on the earlier stop. He stared for a moment, as though he was about to say something, then he turned his attention back to the passengers. He asked them a few questions, cordially, politely, and then tipped his beret and climbed back aboard the PBR. Ski didn’t say anything to Le, he just yelled for the Vietnamese in the sampan to drop the ropes. They did, and almost immediately Ski gunned the engines and we were headed up-river again.
Almost as soon as we got underway, Ski turned and addressed Le in a calm, low-key tone:
“Hey, Le. Do you ever check cargo?”
“Sometime check, yes.”
“Why didn’t you check theirs?”
“Le know people. People no V.C.”
“And how do you know that?”
“Le know people. People live near. People no V.C.”
“That’s bullshit! Everybody’s V.C.!”
“No! People no V.C.! Everybody no V.C.!”
“Why you say bullshit? Why you say everybody V.C.?”
“‘Cause all Vietnamese are V.C. when they have to be!”
“That bullshit! Everybody no V.C.!”
“I ain’t gonna argue with you, asshole! But from now on, check the cargo. If Sandy Claus himself lands his god-damn sleigh on the river, we’re gon’ stop his ass, and you’re gon’ check his bag. And when you check his bag, if you find a weapon, even if it has Mattel stamped on the side, we’re gonna confiscate the god-damn thing! You understand?”
“Yea! Sandy Claus; big, fat fucker in red fatigues; white beard down to his ying-yang!”
“No know Sandy Claw.”
“Just check the cargo, OK!”
“OK! But people no V.C.!”
“Fuck it! Just check the god-damn cargo!”
Ski’s exchange with Le was comical, I wanted to laugh but I fought back the urge. Though the exchange was humorous, I began to realize what Ski had meant when he said the Vietnamese didn’t do things the way the American Riv Divs had done them. There was no doubt in my mind that the American crews would have checked for weapons on both of the previous stops.
As we continued up-river I lost track of time, I was thoroughly enjoying the scenery. A short time later I remembered the question I’d wanted to ask Ski earlier.
“Why is the water so blue? It looks like ocean water. Why isn’t it brown? Muddy?”
“Stick your hand over the side.”
“Put your hand in the water.”
I did as I was instructed.
“Your hand, dumbass. Lick your hand.”
I licked my hand. The water was salty.
“It looks like ocean water because it IS ocean water. Most of the rivers in the delta are tidal flows, they flow in and out with the tide from the South China Sea.”
“The land is flat here, completely flat. There ain’t much elevation at all. The difference in sea level from here all the way to the Cambodian border can’t be more than ten to fifteen feet. I’d really be surprised if it was more than that.”
“Does the river stay blue all the way to the border?”
“No. But it stays salty.”
“All the way?”
“Far as I know.”
I continued to marvel at the scenery. I continued to marvel at all the things there were to learn; about the country; about the people; about the river. It seemed like hours went by, but it was probably no more than fifteen or twenty minutes before we finally reached the Mobile Base.
When Mobile Base II came into view I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t just a single barge, it was a series of barges tied up together on the southern bank of the Vam Co Tay right next to the province chief’s compound just a few blocks from downtown Tan An.
Ski piloted our boat to the edge of the nearest barge and we tied up there. The coxswain on the cover boat pulled his craft in behind us.
“OK, Guns. You better stay aboard. If you get off the boat and somebody figures out who you are, they might make you stay.”
Ski and all the Vietnamese exited the boat. A short time later, one of them rolled a barrel over to the edge of the barge and he and another crew member began hand-pumping fuel into the PBR. When our tanks were topped off, they rolled the barrel over to where the cover boat was moored and began topping off its tanks.
The Vietnamese had stocked up both craft with several cases of beer and soda before we left Nha Be. Just moments after they’d secured from topping off our tanks, Ski and the other crew members appeared carrying four or five additional cases of beer and soda and a case or two of C-rations. Ski seemed to be very excited.
“Hot damn! Look what we got!”
“Cokes! Real cokes! Coca-cola!”
“Yea! And real beer! P.B.R.! Pabst Blue Ribbon!”
“And we didn’t even have to swap our old stuff. We can keep that Shasta shit, and that off-brand Jax beer, too! And that ain’t all!”
“Ice! Hand me the cooler.”
There was a ten gallon, red and white plastic cooler on the deck next to the right gunnel. I picked it up and handed it to Ski and he walked away eagerly, smiling like a boy scout at an all-girl slumber party.
Five minutes later, Ski returned. He passed the red and white cooler over the side and I took it and placed it on the deck. Ski then climbed aboard and took the lid off the Igloo water cooler that was mounted on the coxswain’s flat bulkhead next to the compartment opening on the starboard side. After scooping several handfuls of ice into the Igloo cooler, Ski replaced the lid and started opening a case of canned cokes. I grabbed a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon and started ripping it open, too. The red and white cooler was half-full of ice and in no time at all we’d buried the coke and beer cans under that wonderful, hard-to-get cold stuff.
With our tanks topped off, a water cooler full of ice water, a cooler full of beer and cokes and enough C-rations to last us for two or three days, we cast off from the mobile base and continued our run up-river.
As we left the mobile base and crossed under the Tan An bridge heading west toward Cambodia, the crew didn’t seem to anticipate any danger. They were at their stations - ready for action in case anything unexpected happened - but there seemed to be a general feeling of calm and ease, as though nothing of a hostile nature was imminent or expected.
The crew’s lack of hostile expectations was catching. I began to feel safe and secure as well. I began to enjoy the experience again; to enjoy the ride; to enjoy the sights. And what beautiful sights they were.
The Vam Co Tay, from the point where we’d left the canal and headed toward the mobile base, had only been 150 to 200 feet wide. But as we approached the base and the outskirts of Tan An, the river widened substantially. As we moved a mile or so up-river, away from the base, the river narrowed again. It didn’t narrow by any great degree, but it was obviously not as wide as it had been just five or ten minutes earlier. And the foliage was beautiful. It wasn’t just beautiful, it was breathtaking.
I don’t know why, but all of a sudden, while I was enjoying the ride and the scenery, something Ski had said earlier popped into my mind. It was a rather ridiculous thought, really, but it stuck in my craw and just wouldn’t go away.
“You said something earlier, after that first sampan we stopped ...”
“And ... well ... it just got me to wondering.”
“Wondering about what? Wha’d I say?”
“It’s not really important, but ...”
“Everything’s important on the river, Guns. Whatcha’ wanna know?”
“Well ... when Le didn’t check the cargo on that first stop, you said something like ... we might as well be on the Mike Fink riverboat ride back at Disneyland.”
“Well. I ain’t ever been to Disneyland, but I don’t think there’s a Mike Fink riverboat ride there.”
“Sure there is.”
“No. I don’t think so. They’ve got that jungle cruise thing ... you know ... where the phony alligators and hippos threaten the boats as they travel through ... but I don’t think there’s a Mike Fink ride.”
Ski didn’t say anything for a moment, he just stared at me with a curious, concerned expression on his face. When he finally did speak, the curious stare became a serious look.
“No, no, no! There’s got to be a Mike Fink ride! I mean, Frontierland wouldn’t be Frontierland if it didn’t have a Mike Fink ride!”
“I don’t think so, man.”
“No! There’s gotta be!”
While Ski was making his argument, insisting that there was a Mike Fink ride at Disney-land, I began to notice that the Vietnamese were staring at us with a great deal of interest. Then, out of nowhere, Le joined the conversation.
“Who Mike Fink?”
Ski turned and looked at him. I think at first that he thought Le was toying with him. But Le’s expression was a serious one, and when Ski finally realized that, his demeanor changed immediately. His expression changed from one of serious concern - a frown - to one of happiness and mirth - a smile, and what happened next dumbfounded me. Ski, the stern taskmaster who belittled the Vietnamese at every opportunity, began telling them about Mike Fink, much like a father would tell a bedtime story to his children.
“Who’s Mike Fink! Why Mike Fink’s the greatest riverboat man that ever lived!”
Le responded immediately; excitedly.
“Tell, Ski. You tell Mike Fink?”
“Yea. I’ll tell ya’. I’ll tell ya’ ‘bout ol’ Mike Fink.”
With that, Ski began to tell the story about the Mike Fink character from the Walt Disney movie ‘Davy Crockett & The River Pirates’. In doing so, he had to raise his voice to a shout so that he could be heard over the din of the engines.
“Gentlemen. Mike Fink is the greatest riverboat man that ever navigated brown water. And he’s the meanest son-of-a-bitch that ever rode brown water, too.
“Now ol’ Mike don’t wear no black beret. No sir! He wears a red one. And in that red beret, right over the right ear, he’s poked a big ol’ rooster tail.”
The man in the front gun tub yelled out a question.
“Why he wear featha?”
“Ya’ll don’t know about the cock-of-the-walk?”
The man on the rear .50 responded.
“Yea. Cock-of-the-walk. In any chicken yard you’ve got a whole slew of chickens, and any good farm’s gonna have more than one rooster. Well ... the boss rooster, the one that can lick all them other roosters, is called the cock-of-the-walk. He’s the only one that can strut around the yard with his tail feathers flared. Well ... Mike Fink’s the cock-of-the-walk on the rivers. That’s why he wears that tail feather in his cap. All the other boat captains know he’s the boss, and only the bravest would dare challenge him; challenge him to go at it in a one-on-one fight.”
Le responded comically, with a smile on his face. He was really getting into the story.
“Ooooooo ... sound like Mike Fink numba ten!”
The terms ‘number one’ and ‘number ten’ were slang phrases the Americans had taught the Vietnamese early on in the war. If something was good, it was ‘number one’. If something was bad, it was ‘number ten’. Those terms were strictly black and white. I never heard anyone, or anything, referred to as ‘number two’, or ‘number nine’, or any other number in the sequence. Someone, or something, was either ‘number one’ or ‘number ten’, there was no middle ground.
“Au contraire, mista Le,” Ski continued. “Mike Fink NUMBA ONE!”
“No can be numba one! Mike Fink mean! Mike Fink numba ten!”
“To his enemies, yes. Number ten. But to his friends ... numba one. And ol’ Mike ain’t scared of nobody. When he goes into Indian country, he don’t take his boat down the middle of the channel. No sir! He takes that sucker as close to the bank as he can; so close you can reach out and touch the bank.”
Indian country was a term American servicemen used to refer to any hostile territory in Nam - any territory where Charlie or the N.V.A. were likely to be. Accordingly, when Ski used that term, the Vietnamese had no reason to believe that he was talking about ‘Indian Country’ in the nineteenth century back in the states. As far as they were concerned, he was talking about Nam.
The man in the front gun tub took issue with what Ski had just said.
“No can do. That dumb thing. Close to bank, enemy can kill! Can kill easy!”
“That’s right. The enemy could kill any mortal man that did that. But Mike Fink is charmed. The enemy can’t kill him! He’s too mean!”
Le responded again, still smiling, still enjoying the story.
“See! He mean! He numba ten! If he mean ... he numba ten!”
“Like I said ... he’s mean to his enemies, but not to his friends.”
The man in the front gun tub responded again.
“What mean charm?”
“Magic, Ky. Mike Fink’s magic; charmed.”
All three of the Vietnamese began smiling and talking to each other. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but I suspected that they were trying to come to some agreement on exactly what the word ‘charmed’ meant in Vietnamese. Ski finally interrupted them.
“Witchy, witchy! You biet? Ol’ Mike’s witchy, witchy!”
Le smiled. He understood what Ski meant, but he twisted the meaning.
“Ah! Ding da dow!”
Ski smiled. Then he teased them a little.
“Well ... that ain’t exactly what I meant. But, yea. I guess he’s a little crazy.”
For the next ten minutes Ski told the story of Mike Fink. He was making up most of it as he went along. I’d seen the movie; I’d seen ‘Davy Crockett & The River Pirates’, and I didn’t remember seeing most of the stuff he was talking about. But I didn’t interrupt him; I didn’t challenge his version of events. I was enjoying the moment.
The transformation in Ski’s demeanor fascinated me. Instead of the mean-spirited, brow-beating, belittling character he’d been before, he’d become a down-right pleasant fellow; almost like a teacher; and he was thoroughly enjoying every minute of it. And the Vietnamese were enjoying it, too. I could tell that they were beginning to see Ski in a different light. They were beginning to understand that he wasn’t the monster he’d led them to believe he was.
When Ski finally brought the story to an end, I suddenly realized that the Vietnamese thought he’d been talking about a real character. I don’t mean that in the historical sense - for all I know, Mike Fink WAS real - he really did live. But I quickly deduced that the Vietnamese thought he’d been talking about a character that had been on a riverboat in Vietnam. The more I thought about it, the more I came to see how they’d come to that conclusion. Ski had - for the most part - told the story in the present tense. Ski didn’t realize he’d done that until Le asked the all-important question.
“Mike Fink ride Bassac, Ski? He ride Bassac riva? Bassac bad riva!”
Ski didn’t say anything. He just turned and gave me a peculiar grin. Le finally ask him again.
“Mike Fink ride Bassac, Ski?”
“Yea, Le. He rode the Bassac. Ain’t that right, Guns? Didn’t Mike Fink ride the Bassac?”
Ski was smiling. I broke out in a smile, too. A big, shit-eatin’ smile.
“Whatever you say, man. Whatever you say.”
As we continued up-river, the heat and the humidity began to take their toll. I’d been in Nam long enough to become used to the heat, but I wasn’t used to being exposed to the heat while wearing a flak jacket. I was tempted to take the darn thing off, but I didn’t. Ski was still wearing his, and that was all the motivation I needed to keep wearing mine.
Thirty or forty minutes after leaving the Mobile Base, just as we were negotiating a slight bend in the river, a bright green sampan came into view. There were four occupants, all male, and all were wearing black clothing and conical straw hats. They were the quintessential picture of what I’d expected the Vietcong to look like. As soon as the crew members saw them, each one, without being told to do so, immediately manned their weapons and jacked a round in the chamber to make sure they were loaded. Each weapon had been locked and loaded earlier, and when the levers were pulled back, unfired rounds went flying everywhere. I was a little slow to respond, but when I realized what was happening, I copied what Le did and made sure there was a round in my .60 as well.
We made a cautious approach. Ski didn’t sound the siren. I got the distinct impression that he wanted to see how close we could get before the occupants saw us. When there was no mistake that they knew that we were there, and they didn’t react in a suspicious manner, Ski approached the sampan and motioned for the craft to pull along side.
“All right, people. Keep your eyes open. Le! Get ready to board!”
When we pulled up next to the sampan, the front and rear crew members threw ropes to the Vietnamese in the fore and aft positions. They picked up the ropes and pulled them taught. When both craft were side-by-side, Le boarded the sampan and began checking identity papers. When he finished that chore, he immediately began checking their cargo.
The cargo consisted of seven or eight earthen jars full of rice and other food stuffs. Le forced his hand down into each vessel and quickly determined that there was no contraband present. There were three or four deck boards on the craft and Le asked for permission to raise them. The occupants didn’t object and, one board at a time, Le lifted the planks. There was nothing there.
Besides the earthen jars, there were four other cargo items: three chickens and a big, cocky, red, white and black rooster. When Le completed his search, his attention turned to the rooster and he began conversing with one of the occupants. I could tell that they were discussing the rooster; Le kept pointing at it while they were talking. At one point in the conversation, the man he was talking to picked up the rooster and held it close to his breast. Ski didn’t seem to know what was going on and he quickly made an inquiry.
“What’s goin’ on? What’s the problem?”
Le stopped what he was doing long enough to assure Ski that there wasn’t a problem, then he continued his conversation with the occupant. Just when it appeared that the conversation wasn’t going anywhere, Le reached in his pants pocket and pulled out a wad of piaster. He counted out four or five bills and offered them to the man holding the rooster. The man stared at the money for a moment and then handed Le the rooster. Le in turn handed him the money. Ski, like the rest of us, was confused, and he ordered Le back on the boat.
“Come on, Le. Let’s get outta here.”
Le didn’t respond. Instead, he held the rooster firmly under one arm and plucked a big, black tail feather off the rooster’s rear-end with his free hand. The rooster pitched a hissy fit, but calmed down immediately when Le handed him back to his owner.
With tail feather in-hand, Le climbed back aboard and Ski instructed the two men holding the ropes to drop them. When they did, Ski reached for the throttles. Before he could engage them, however, Le waved at him and motioned for him to stop. Ski stared at him for a moment. Just as Ski was about to speak, Le pointed at Ski’s beret and motioned for him to take it off. The expression on Ski’s face was priceless. I think he knew what Le was about to do, and for a moment I thought he was going to object, but he didn’t. Le motioned for Ski to remove his beret again and he did; slowly; reluctantly.
Once Ski had removed his beret, Le handed him the feather and motioned for him to attach the feather to it. Ski made a motion with the feather, as though he was about to poke a hole in his beret with it, and Le responded with a nod. Ski made the motion again, as though he wanted to be absolutely sure about what Le wanted him to do. Again, Le responded with an affirmative nod. Ski then turned and looked at the other crew members. They were all smiling and nodding in the affirmative as well. Then, in one quick, forceful motion, Ski poked the feather into his beret and placed it back on his head. Once the beret was in place, the Vietnamese all started clapping. Le was the first to speak.
“You Numba one, Ski! You cock-a-walk! You numba one G.I.!”
Ski had a smile on his face. I could tell he was a little embarrassed, but I could also tell that he was enjoying the hell out of the moment. I couldn’t resist making a comment.
“Well I’ll be damned! Looks like you done took ol’ Mike Fink’s place.”
Ski responded with a grin and a chuckle.
“Long as I ain’t gotta ride the Bassac. They were right about that son-of-a-bitch! It’s one, bad motherfuckin’ river!”
The change in the crew’s attitude after the Mike Fink story was obvious. Before, when Le had checked the boats we’d stopped, he was just going through the motions; it was though he’d intentionally been doing a half-ass job just to piss Ski off. But on the last stop, he’d been the consummate professional. He’d checked the passengers’ papers with intensity; an intensity he hadn’t shown before. And he hadn’t looked back to see if Ski wanted him to check the cargo; he’d just done it, and he’d done it thoroughly and completely. And the rooster tail thing! That was something else entirely. By offering the rooster tail to Ski, by acknowledging Ski to be the ‘cock-of-the-walk’, it was as though a barrier had been breached. I noticed a change in attitude with the Vietnamese, and I could tell that Ski had noticed it, too.
Fifteen or twenty minutes after the last sampan stop, Ski throttled down on the engines and motioned for the cover boat to pull ahead of us and assume the lead position. He then instructed the man on the rear .50 to test-fire his weapon. He did so - in both short and fully automatic bursts - and again, the weapon worked to perfection. As we moved back into the lead position and continued up-river, Ski motioned for me and Le to man our .60s. He then instructed the man on the rear .50 to do a hurry-up cleaning job on his weapon.
Sometime in mid-afternoon, Ski called Le over next to him and spoke to him briefly. I didn’t know what he’d said to him, the din of the engines was too loud, but when Ski finished talking, Le moved into the forward compartment. A moment or two later, he emerged carrying a case of C-rations. I was standing in the coxswain’s flat next to Ski. Le motioned at me, asking without words if I’d hold the case of C-rats. I nodded in the affirmative and took the case from him. Then Le walked over to the engine cover and raised the two plywood doors. The sound of the engines got really loud when the covers were raised; the noise was almost deafening. Le quickly took the case of C-rats and tore it open. Then, one can at a time, he laid some of the cans in the case on the manifold of the engine. When he was done, Le handed me the case and closed the engine covers.
About ten minutes later, a sandbar appeared in mid-channel, Ski piloted our boat to the edge of the bar and killed the engine. He motioned for the cover boat to pull up next to us and do the same. At first I was a little anxious; I had no idea what was happening. I thought maybe Ski had noticed something and we were preparing for a fight. But when Le opened the engine covers and began retrieving C-ration cans with a pair of tongs, I realized it was time for lunch.
When Cong and his crew on the cover boat had seen Le open our engine covers while we were underway, they knew what he was doing, so they’d opened a case of C-rats and placed some cans on their engine manifold, too.
Once the engines on both boats fell silent, Ski told our crew to stop what they were doing and for all of us to stand by our weapons. He then yelled at the crew in the cover boat and told them to chow down. They’d already retrieved their hot C-rat cans and it didn’t take long for them to eat - just five or ten minutes - and when they were done, they stood by their weapons while we chowed down.
The C-rations were a surprise. Ski handed me a tin of crackers and a can that contained some sort of meat product. Before I opened both with my P-38, I inspected the cans. The black printing on the olive drab containers indicated that both had been packaged in 1945.
“Whatsa’ matter, Guns?”
“This shit was packaged during World War II!”
Ski grinned and responded with a giggle and a mouthful of crackers.
“Wha’d you expect? McDonalds?”
“Most of the C’s are World War II and Korean leftovers.”
“But won’t it hurt us? I mean, this shit’s almost thirty years old!”
“Might give you the runs ... but it won’t kill ya’.”
The Vietnamese started laughing. They were obviously enjoying my innocence and ignorance. I took my first bite cautiously expecting the taste to be foul and offensive. I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t the greatest tasting fare I’d ever had, but all things considered, it wasn’t all that bad.
We all had a coke with our meal. The cold cokes were a blessing. The heat was oppressive, and the humidity was probably close to 90 percent. As soon as we’d all eaten, Ski went to the cooler, opened it and tossed everyone a beer. Then, he started up the engines and backed the boat off the sand bar. The boat captain on the cover boat started his engines and a moment or two later we were underway again.
The next four hours were excruciating. The heat was intense and the humidity was awful. I quickly came to realize why the Vietnamese had chosen to forego flak jackets and uniforms. They were certainly more comfortable than Ski and I were in their T-shirts, shorts and flip flops. Again, I thought about taking off my flak jacket. But Ski kept his on, so I kept mine on, too.
As we suffered through the afternoon heat we made three or four more Market Time stops. All were uneventful; all the occupants of the boats had proper papers, and Le found no contraband aboard any of the craft.
We didn’t stay on the Vam Co Tay. Every now and then we’d turn and venture a mile or so down a canal. If there was sampan traffic on the canal, we’d stop ‘em and check ‘em out. If not, we’d just turn around and head back toward the Tay.
Sometime in the late afternoon, around 4 or 5 o’clock, we were back on the Vam Co Tay again. Ski throttled down the engines and began checking a map.
“All right, guys. We should be close to the extraction point. Keep your eyes open for two hardwood trees. One is on one side of the river, and one is on the opposite bank, directly across from the other.”
I hadn’t really noticed before, but there weren’t that many hardwood trees growing along the riverbank. In fact ... I couldn’t remember seeing one all day. The riverbank, and that thing that was generally referred to as a tree line, wasn’t really made up of trees at all. It was mostly nippa palm and other such plants mixed with high stands of saw grass.
“Hey, Ski. Whada’ we do when we find ‘em?”
“Set the bush. The trees are the extraction point.”
We searched the river for the next fifteen or twenty minutes looking for the trees. A couple of times Ski turned the boat around and back-tracked down the river; he was afraid we’d missed them; afraid we hadn’t seen them.
“Damn it! They’re supposed to be somewhere right around here.”
Eventually, Ski quit back-tracking and we continued our run up-river. Finally, sometime around 6 o’clock, just as we negotiated a bend in the river, and just as the river began to narrow considerably, the trees came into view.
“Aw ... there they are.”
As Ski approached the hardwoods, he throttled back on the engines and we coasted to a stop in mid-channel. With one tree directly to the right, and the other directly to the left, Ski scoped out the area. The tree to our right, as we faced up-river toward Cambodia, was on a slight, half-circular, outcropping of land that jutted out from the riverbank. On the up-river and down riversides of the outcropping there were two narrow inlets.
“OK, Le. It’s your show. Whatcha’ gon’ do? How you gon’ lay this sucker?”
Le took a moment to look over the area. While he did so, Ski came and stood right next to me. Then he leaned over and began whispering in my ear.
“The gooks don’t lay a bush like we used to. Most of the time we used to just pull up next to the bank, point our boats in the best escape direction and then secure ‘em right out in the open. They like to hide. You mark my word, he’s gon’ put one in one inlet and the other in the other. Then they’re gon’ start cuttin’ palm fronds and undergrowth. They’re gon’ hide the fuckers and camouflage the shit out of ‘em ... you watch.”
A moment or two later, Le explained his ambush plan. It was exactly what Ski had expected it to be.
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