7: Camp TIEN SHA
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When the buses pulled up in front of the main gate at Camp Tien Sha the Vietnam experience got more surreal than ever.
Camp Tien Sha was an old French army base. It was now the headquarters for all U.S. Naval Support Activities in I Corps, the northern-most theatre of war in South Vietnam. There were white stucco buildings everywhere, and the doors and exterior woodwork, specifically the shutters for the windows, were painted a dark green. The plot for the camp had been laid out by a military architect who certainly had an eye for symmetry. The streets were arrow-straight, and they bisected each other at almost every point on the perpendicular.
The thing that everyone noticed right off the bat were the white picket fences. They were everywhere. They encircled every block of buildings. Sometimes, they encircled individual buildings. The fences were approximately three feet high, and the only openings were where streets met sidewalks. Sometimes, there were gates at these openings, but in most cases there weren’t.
The sight was incredibly surreal. The white stucco buildings; the green shutters; the white picket fences, they were certainly not what one expected to see in a war zone. The visual impact was much like watching a Franco Zefferelli movie. Zefferelli was a Italian film director that was known for producing avant-garde films in which life imitated art. That certainly seemed to be the case here.
Earles had a problem with the fences right away. Before the buses had even come to a stop he was voicing a complaint:
“Look at those god-damned fences! Jesus, man! What if there’s a rocket attack at night or something? People’ll be running every-which-way! I bet you can’t see them fuckers in the dark. Them fences are in the way, man! I don’t like this shit!”
One of the others uttered a hopeful thought:
“Maybe they don’t have rocket attacks here.”
The bus driver was quick to respond:
“Ain’t had one in a while, but it’ll happen. I guarantee, it’ll happen!”
“I’m tellin’ ya’, man. I don’t like these fuckin’ fences.”
The bus driver added a final thought, and he said what he said with a deliberate touch of sarcasm:
“The ol’ man likes his fences, man. So you better get used to ‘em ‘cause they ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
As the bus made its way through the base compound we passed a large sign. It was a rendering of the Peanuts character ‘Snoopy’ sitting on top of a plane fuselage. The Snoopy character was wearing goggles and had a scarf around his neck. Whenever you saw Snoopy, with goggles on, with a scarf around his neck, you knew that his dog house had become a Sopwith Camel, a World War I bi-plane, and he was ready to do battle with the evil ‘Red Baron’, a German World War I flying ace. Just down the street from the Snoopy character there was another sign. It read:
“Welcome to sunny, scenic DaNang, RVN.”
The sign and its obvious attempt at humor really got to Earles.
“I’m tellin’ ya’, man. This place is weird! We definitely ain’t in Kansas no more!”
Earles would always turn to humor when serious events moved beyond his control. They had moved beyond his control when he saw the fences, and the Snoopy sign was almost more than he could take. Suddenly, he started singing a song we’d all heard before. Slowly, what he was singing hit a chord with all of us and we all started singing along:
“We represent the Lollipop Guild, the Lollipop Guild, the Lollipop Guild. We represent the Lollipop Guild, and we’d like to welcome you to Munchkin Land.”
We were still singing the ‘Lollipop’ song from the ‘Wizard of Oz’ when the buses came to a halt in front of the master-at-arms building. As we began to exit the bus, Earles started another little ditty and we joined in on that one as well:
“Follow the yellow brick road. Follow the yellow brick road. Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow the yellow brick road.”
We were all a little giddy. Most of us had only managed three or four hours of sleep over a three-day span of time. I’d spent the night before we left Norton listening to SERE war stories. I’d been too nervous about the flight to go to sleep then. And on the flight over it had never gotten dark. Mix that with the emotions we all felt about where we were headed and it was easy to understand why sleep wouldn’t come on the flight. We were punch drunk; scared to death, and we were reacting to things, visual and verbal, in ways we ordinarily wouldn’t.
The bus driver couldn’t resist taking a shot at us as we were exiting the bus:
“You FNGs kill me. You always think everything’s funny when you first get here. But you just wait. Won’t none of you be laughin’ and singin’ when you get your duty assignments.”
I stopped at the door; I stood right in front of him; my dander was up.
“What’s an FNG?”
He wasn’t smiling when he answered me. His face was set with a grimace; there was a touch of anger in his voice:
“A fuckin’ new guy!”
“I don’t appreciate that.”
“Hey, it’s a god-damn expression, OK!”
“Well I don’t appreciate it.”
“It don’t mean nothin’!”
“Then why’d you say it?”
“IT DON’T MEAN NOTHIN’!”
“THEN WHY’D YOU SAY IT?”
“GOD DAMN IT! THAT’S AN EXPRESSION, TOO!”
“THEN GOD DAMN IT! WHY’D YOU SAY IT?”
“Hey, Geez! It don’t mean nothin’, OK!”
“OK. (pause) But why’d you say it?”
“‘CAUSE YOU’RE A FUCKIN’ NEW GUY!”
I was blocking the door; the guy behind me poked me on the shoulder when he spoke:
“Come on, man. Let’s get out of here.”
I moved passed the driver and exited the bus. Earles was waiting for me at the bottom of the steps. His lips were pursed together. They hardly parted when he spoke.
“I don’t like that guy, man. He’s an asshole. A real, friggin’ asshole.”
Just as Earles and I were about to follow the others toward the master-at-arms building, the driver began to pick on the last guy off the bus; the frail kid who’d almost come to tears earlier.
“So, you wanna go home, huh?”
The kid couldn’t have been more than 19. He had a lost look on his face; like a five-year-old who’d been separated from his parents at a big airport or something. His bottom lip started quivering again as he tried to respond.
“I just ... I just ...”
I interrupted the conversation:
“OK, asshole! You got somethin’ to say, you say it to me!”
The bus driver exploded:
“Come on, new guy. You wanna fight?”
I was halfway up the steps when Earles grabbed me and bodily yanked me so hard that I landed on my side on the gravel walkway. I hit the deck so hard that it tore three holes in my summer white uniform; two in the pants and one in the jumper. The whole right side of my body ached. I was bleeding at the knee, at the thigh, and at the elbow on my right side. As I fought to get back up, I heard Earles pleading in a calm but fervent voice as he grabbed me around the waist:
“He ain’t worth it, Bob. Screw that son-of-a-bitch!”
Earles and I fell in at the end of the line and continued our in-processing at the master-at-arms office. The frail sailor fell in behind us. The line had spilled over outside the building and it took about 15 minutes for us to make it through the door. The bus drivers cranked their buses and pulled out just as the three of us entered the building.
We were all in possession of our seabags and service records. As each of us got to the duty clerk he took our records and stamped a number of documents with a time and date stamp. We were then issued chits for bedding and a berthing assignment in the transient barracks. Once we’d all been processed, the duty clerk formed us up outside and told us about the final stage of check-in.
“It’s late in the day, so get yourselves checked in at the barracks and draw your bedding issue. When you’re done, scope out the base. The map you’ve been issued will show you how to find the chow hall, the PX, the E.M. club, the Acey Deucy club, the tape library, the theater and other base amenities.
“Tomorrow, after breakfast, report back here and pick up your service records. You have to take them over to DaNang proper and formally report to the naval office at the White Elephant; that’s where all I Corps naval records are kept. It’s the main office, so to speak.
“Make a note. We employ indigenous Vietnamese to do certain jobs on the base. For example: mama sans are employed to keep the head facilities clean. Don’t be surprised if you’re takin’ a shower, a leak, or a dump and some mama san walks in and starts policin’ up the area. Don’t mess with ‘em; that’s their job. It’ll take some getting used to, but get used to it; that’s life in the Nam.
“DaNang, and that means any area outside the confines of Camp Tien Sha, is off limits at all times. That is, all areas are off limits unless you have specific instructions to be where you’re sent, like the White Elephant tomorrow. That means no liberty in DaNang. DaNang is closed to military personnel unless they have a specific job or duty to perform in the city. Is that understood?”
We all acknowledged his statement.
Someone in the rear spoke up.
“What’s the White Elephant?”
“It’s an old French structure in downtown DaNang. It has some elephant sculptures on the outside; the whole building - sculptures and all - are painted white. Hence, the name. Anything else?”
“Yea. What do we do if there’s a rocket attack?”
“Good question. There are bunkers strategically placed all over the compound. There are bunkers outside each barracks building that were constructed to protect, at a minimum, the number of people housed in that particular berthing unit. There are other bunkers at other locations, you’ll see them as you walk through the facility. They’re all over the place. If there’s an attack, the red alert siren will sound and that’s the signal to get to a bunker as soon as possible. No matter where you’re at, if you hear the siren, get to the nearest bunker immediately. Any other questions?”
“Yea. When will we get our assignments? When will we know what our jobs will be?”
“I don’t know. But I think it would be safe to say that you should know something in a week to ten days; two weeks tops.”
“Will we be standing any watches?”
“You aren’t slated for any initially. The command wants you to have an opportunity to move around and get familiar with the base. For now, no, you won’t be standing any watches, but if you haven’t received orders by day ten that’ll probably change. Any more questions?”
There were none.
“All right. One last thing. Your temporary mailing address is Camp Tien Sha Transient Barracks, DaNang, RVN, FPO San Francisco, California 96695. If there are no more questions, you’re dismissed. And welcome to sunny, scenic DaNang.”
Earles couldn’t resist:
The duty clerk smiled and offered a casual response:
“So. You don’t care much for our little corner of the world.”
“Oh, no! I love it! It’s just ... well ... I think you could probably do a better job of selecting the people who drive your buses.”
“The one we had’s an asshole!”
“Well, get over it. Whatever he did to piss you off, hey ... I assure you, it don’t mean nothin’.”
“You gon’ start that shit, too, huh?”
“It don’t mean nothin’!”
“Right! That’s what I said.”
Bob and I just looked at each other. Then we glared at the clerk. He looked rather nonchalant. We were totally confused. What did ‘it don’t mean nothin’ mean? We shook our heads, exited the building, shouldered our seabags and headed toward the transient barracks which were several blocks away. The frail sailor was right behind us. Earles spoke up as soon as we started walking.
“I’m tellin’ ya’, man. The more I think about it, I wish I hadn’t pulled you off that son-of-bitch.”
“I’m glad you did.”
“Why? God, what a jerk!”
“I can’t believe I did that.”
“Why? I mean, you had every right to! There was no reason for him to talk to the kid like that.”
I stopped dead in my tracks. Earles and the kid stopped, too.
“I ain’t ever done anything like that before. I ain’t ever been in a fight in my life. Honest, I can’t believe I blew up like that.”
“You ain’t ever been in a fight before?”
“But you were in BUDS training!”
“And you ain’t ever been in a fight?”
“It ain’t like that’s a prerequisite or anything.”
“It wasn’t on any questionnaire I ever filled out.”
Earles started laughing. I did, too. The laughter did us both good; it immediately took the edge off. Then the kid spoke up; his question was directed toward me.
“You were a SEAL?”
“I was in the training program for a while. But no, I was never a SEAL.”
“I’m Powers, Bob Powers. This is Bob Earles.”
Earles and I extended our hands.
“I’m Jim. Jimmy Lloyd.”
We shook hands.
“Glad to meet you, Jimmy.”
“Hey, thanks for standing up for me back there.”
“No problem. But you’re gonna need to stiffen that bottom lip, OK.”
“Where you from?”
“Wisconsin. Where you from?”
“I’m from Georgia. Earles is from Texas. Come on, guys. Let’s stow our gear and get something to eat.”
Jimmy’s spirits had lifted considerably.
“Sounds good to me.”
We checked in at the barracks, got our bedding issue, made our bunks and stowed our lockers. Then, we changed into a set of our brand new, dark green utilities. There was one, sure-fire, definitive way to tell who was new in-country. If you were wearing a brand new set of utilities - dark green - that hadn’t been faded from repeated washing or exposure to the sun, then you were definitely an FNG. Decked out in our ‘newbie suits’, and with eyes as big as silver dollars, the three of us checked our maps and charted a course for the chow hall.
The chow hall at Camp Tien Sha was air-conditioned. Accordingly, the staff had to institute a rule against malingering. Once you’d finished your chow, if it was during a rush period and there were a lot of troops coming in, they had personnel on-hand to clear out those that had already eaten.
The food was absolutely superb. In my whole Navy experience I never saw an assortment of food equal to the selection that was always available at Tien Sha. And the cooks were excellent. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought that the Navy had hired professional chefs to cook up the meals.
Earles and Jimmy and I went through the line and piled our plates high. We were giddy, punchy and sleepy as hell, but we were hungry, too. We made our way to a table and sat down next to some guys that had been in-country for a while. Their uniforms were faded - that’s how we knew who they were - and we sought them out specifically; excitedly; aggressively. We wanted to know what the next few days, weeks and months held in store. We had a ton of questions, and who better to ask than somebody who’s been around for a while. So, we introduced ourselves and the questions came forth like water out of a spigot. But none of the old-timers were eager to engage us in conversation. We were miffed; angry; confused. It wasn’t the fact that they didn’t want to talk to us, we didn’t have a problem with that. But it was the WAY they didn’t want to talk to us. They avoided us completely. It was as though we had the plague or something. They hadn’t even finished their meals, and rather than talk to us, they just up and left, with their plates still loaded down with vittles. Earles got really angry.
“What-in-the-hell’s going on around here?”
“Beats the hell out of me.”
“Did they cover this crap in orientation? If they did, I musta’ been sleepin’.”
“I musta’ been sleepin’, too.”
Earles raised both arms, one at a time, and leaned his head down to smell his armpits.
“Do we have B.O. or somethin’?”
Jimmy changed the subject:
“What does ‘it don’t mean nothin’’ mean?”
I put in my two cents worth:
“Bud, that’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question.”
Earles responded; angrily; seriously:
“No. Why’d those assholes just get up and leave like that; with their plates still loaded down with food? THAT’S the sixty-four thousand dollar question!”
Just as we were about to leave the chow hall, I saw a familiar face just three tables away. It was the E-6 gunnersmate that had helped me complete my practical factors form back in Coronado. When we left the chow hall I told Earles and Jimmy that I’d meet them back at the barracks. Then, I waited for Guns to finish his chow. He’d told me back in Coronado that he’d already done a tour in Nam. He was an old-timer; he’d been here before. Maybe he could shed some light on what was going on; what ‘it don’t mean nothin’’ means; and why no one would talk to us.
As soon as Guns walked out the door I got his attention.
“Hey, Guns. Remember me?”
“Hey, Powers. Food’s good, ain’t it?”
“Yea. Listen, can I talk with you for a minute?”
“Sure. What’s up?”
“Well, I’ve ... we’ve ... some of us have been gettin’ the cold shoulder from the guys who’ve been here for a while, and I was just wonderin’ if that was normal; and if it is, why?”
Guns smiled and put his arm around my shoulder.
“Come on, walk back to the barracks with me and I’ll get you some hardware. Then we’ll go over to the Acey Deucy club and have a few beers.”
I had no idea what he meant by hardware, but we walked back to the barracks and I watched as he opened his locker and rifled through a small, white bag in one of the compartment drawers. He came up with three metal E-5 insignias and handed them to me.
“Here, put the two smaller ones on your collars, then put the bigger one on the front of your cap.”
“Whoa! I’m an E-3. I’m not an E-5. Won’t I get in trouble?”
“I’m an E-6. I’d be kind of out-of-place goin’ with you to the E.M. club. The Acey Deucy club is for first and second class petty officers, E-5s and E-6s. If you’re wearin’ E-5 insignia, you can go to the Acey Deucy with me.”
“But what if I get in trouble?”
“You won’t. You’ll be with me. Nobody there’ll know you’re not an E-5. And as long as you’re with me, hey, nobody’ll think twice about it. They know I’d throw your ass out if you weren’t supposed to be there.”
“But what if I get caught?”
“You want answers to your questions or not?”
“Well, come on then.”
We walked the several blocks to the Acey Deucy club and made small talk. The sun was going down. We went inside, went up to the bar, ordered a few beers and then sat down at a table in the rear. Guns pulled on his dog tag chain until the two tags and a P-38 can opener, which was also attached to the chain, revealed themselves from underneath his utility shirt. He popped up the blade on the P-38 and cut a large slit on one side of his Pabst Blue Ribbon can. He then cut a small slit on the other side. I followed his lead. I pulled out my P-38 and did the same thing to mine.
“OK. What you wanna know?”
“Well, I was with a couple of other guys and we sat down next to some old-timers in the chow hall. We tried to strike up a conversation ...”
He interrupted me.
“Let me guess. You started bombing them with questions about what Nam was like; what types of jobs you might be doing here; what everyday life is like; stuff like that, right?”
“Yea. How’d you know?”
“Let me put it to you this way. When you’ve been here for a month or two, and some newbies come pouring in the chow hall one day and they start hittin’ on you for information like that, believe me, you won’t want to talk with them, either.”
“Well, for one thing, you won’t know what to tell ‘em. But even if you did, you wouldn’t know HOW to tell ‘em.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“Let me put it another way.”
He took a long swig on his beer and leaned back in his chair. I could tell he didn’t really know how to say what he wanted to say. He was looking for just the right words.
“If you were in a combat unit things would be a lot different. It would probably be a lot worse. But there’s a measure of proof required in the support ranks as well.”
“Measure of proof? What does that mean?”
Again, it took him some time to find the right words.
“Look. Everything you’ve ever done in your life; everything you’ve ever learned; every-thing about your character; everything, it’s all just been practice for what you’re about to do here.”
“Not literally, of course, but to a large degree it’s true. Everything, even the most mundane situation you might find yourself in back the states, is ratcheted up a notch over here. Let’s use standing watch as an example:
“Back in the states, I bet you used to draw watches where the Navy would have you walkin’ back and forth in front of a candy machine in a gedunk area for four hours at a stretch, right?”
“There was no reason for you to do that. Nobody’s gonna break into a gedunk machine on a military base. That ain’t gonna happen. But they assign you duty like that so you’ll learn how to stand the watch. Here, in Nam, you won’t be guarding no gedunk machines. Now back in the states, if you’d gone off to a corner of the gedunk area and grabbed you a nap at some point in your watch, you’d have been put on report if you got caught, but nobody’s life would have been hangin’ in the balance. Over here, if you go to sleep on watch, people could die as a result. Everything is ratcheted up a notch. Everything is important. There isn’t anything that I can think of, anything that you might do that doesn’t require some thought about the consequences over here.”
“Everything. Even going to the bathroom.”
“Powers. Over here, if you ever sit down and take a dump and get up and flush the toilet without lifting the lid to see if there’s a grenade in the tank, you’re a fool!”
“The old-timers here usually don’t have anything to do with a newbie until they know the newbie has been around long enough to know the score. If I was an old-timer, and I was sitting in the stall next to you, and you didn’t check the tank before you flushed, I’d beat the shit out of you. You see, your mistake would blow my ass all to pieces, too. These guys just aren’t going to have much to do with you until you’re done making dumb mistakes. Newbie mistakes.”
“Are you gettin’ my drift?”
“There ain’t nothing you can think of, no matter how mundane, that isn’t ratcheted up a notch over here.”
My mind was racing. Everything he was saying made sense. But what did he mean about combat being worse.
“You said it was different in a combat unit. How is that different?”
“Same things still apply, but there’s another element; another element entirely. In a com-bat unit, not only can your dumb mistakes kill your crew mates, but they’re going to want to know how you react under fire. They’ll want to know whether they can turn their backs on you in the first few moments of a firefight. Are you going to be able to return fire and cover them from your position, or are you going to freeze up and expose them to a hail of lead without them even being aware of it? Until they know the answer to that question; until they know whether you’ve got the stuff or not, they aren’t going to give you the time of day. They won’t even want to know your name. When you prove yourself in combat, you’ll be accepted. But until you do, you’re just new meat. You’re an unknown factor. That’s just the way it is. Ain’t nothin’ can change that. In reality, that’s the way it has to be. Lives are on the line.”
For a minute or two neither of us said anything. Guns finished his first beer and began opening his second. I decided to ask him about ‘it don’t mean nothin’.
“What does ... what does ‘it don’t mean nothin’ mean?”
“I didn’t hear that expression until the end of my first tour. It just kind of popped up out of nowhere when morale started going down.”
“Morale? Going down? What do you mean?”
“Tet ‘68. Khe Sanh.”
“You know what happened!”
“No, I don’t!”
“All those Marines! At Khe Sanh! Dead! For nothing!”
“Yea! For nothing! All those boys died for nothing! They held out for over a month against a siege that was more intense than the fighting at Dienbienphu back when the gooks annihilated the French in the fifties. They held out for over a month. Then, just a week or so after the fighting was over; while we were still recovering the remains of our guys who’d died out close to the wire; before they even had ‘em zipped up in body bags, Westmoreland says the base is no longer of any strategic importance and he pulls them out. We abandon the base, pull completely out of the area, and as soon as we leave, the gooks move in and take it over. Morale all over went straight in the toilet. Every branch of the service was affected.”
“It was bullshit! Nobody felt good about any fight we were in after that. Nobody knew whether the ground we were fighting for was worth it or not. And if it wasn’t worth it, hell! Nobody wanted to lay it on the line for nothing. And that’s what Khe Sanh meant! To everybody! It might not be worth it! And if it wasn’t worth it, it didn’t mean anything! ‘DON’T MEAN NOTHIN’!” Nothing meant nothing after that! Nobody wanted anything to do with anything; it didn’t matter what it was!”
“So ... combat is what they’re talking about when they say ‘it don’t mean nothin’?”
“No. ‘It don’t mean nothin’ just came to mean EVERYTHING. ‘It don’t mean nothin’ has come to be a stock answer for anything and everything; any question. One guy might say, ‘Hey, man, you look tired!’ The other guy just answers, ‘It don’t mean nothin’.’ Or, you could ask a guy, ‘Hey, did you get a letter from home today?’ He might respond, ‘Hey, it don’t mean nothin.’ Problem is, you don’t know whether he means ‘yes’ or ‘no’. ‘Yes, I got a letter, but it don’t mean nothin’.’ or, ‘no, I didn’t get a letter, but it don’t mean nothin’.’ Either way, it don’t mean nothin’. ‘It don’t mean nothin’ don’t mean nothin’. Just like the war has come to mean nothin’. It’s turned into a mess, man. A big, friggin’ mess. AND IT DON’T MEAN NOTHIN’!”
“But you know what? In spite of that; in spite of the morale problem; in spite of the way the general staff and those running this war have fucked it all up, the little guys; the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines; the guys out in the boonies and the guys workin’ at places like this, in support, we’re still doin’ our jobs; we’re suffering through the bullshit. And in spite of the bullshit, we’re doin’ what they ask us to do and we ain’t complaining in the process. We’re sufferin’ through that bullshit in spite of their stupidity. There’s not much pride to be taken in that, but what pride there is ... well ... I’m mighty proud of those kids out there for hangin’ in and doin’ their jobs in spite of the assholes we’ve got leading us.”
“Now, back to what we were talkin’ about before. You might land a job in an armory here at Tien Sha. If you do, don’t take anything you do for granted. If you’re tasked to open a crate containing a new .50, you break that bad boy out and clean it real good. Soak it in solvent and get all the gunk off. Put the thing together like you’re changin’ the diaper on a baby. When you check the head space and timing, do it like a life depends on it! ‘CAUSE IT WILL! If you put a piece together and it goes out in the field and doesn’t work, you’re gonna kill somebody. If you don’t do it right the first time, THERE AIN’T GONNA BE NO SECOND TIME! You got me?”
“Everything’s ratcheted up a notch here. You got me?”
“Good. Now! Let’s get drunk!”
And we did. We didn’t get stone-cold, knee-walkin’, toilet-huggin’ drunk, but we were lit enough to wrap our arms around each other and sing Anchors Aweigh all the way back to the barracks. I was wobbly, but I managed to write four short letters before I hit the rack; one each to the two girls I’d met at the College of Saint Francis; one to Carol Ann, and one to my folks. Then, I just plopped down in my rack with my clothes on.
First thing the next morning, woozie but awake, I headed straight for the head. I did my business on the toilet, and sure enough, before I flushed it, I raised the tank lid and looked for anything out of the ordinary. Everything looked fine, so I flushed it. Then I went to a sink and shaved. After shaving, I went to the shower side of the head and couldn’t wait for that warm water to clear away my hangover.
I was midway through my shower when I heard a noise. My hair and face were all lathered up, so, I stuck my head under the nozzle to wash the soap away. When I could finally see, I was horrified. A short, middle-aged Vietnamese woman was standing right in front of me. She was staring at me with a broom in her hand. I immediately covered my privates with my left hand while I waved at her with my right.
“Get out of here, mama san! Go away!
“No didi mao!”
“Me no didi mao! Me sweepy!”
She was smiling and staring at my privates. When she smiled I caught a glimpse of her teeth. They were stained a dark, reddish-brown, and there was an ugly red juice in her mouth.
“Get out of here, mama san! Now!”
“Me no didi mao! Me worky sweepy!
I raised both hands and made a motion like I would strangle her if she didn’t leave. When I did, my privates came into full view. She covered her mouth with one hand and pointed at my genitals with the other.
“Ohhhh! I see G.I. weenie!”
“God damn it, mama san! I mean it! Get-the-hell out of here!”
“No! Me no didi mao! Me worky! Me sweepy!
I finished my shower, toweled off, and huffed my way back to the barracks with my towel wrapped around my waist. I was the last one up. Everyone else had already gone to chow. I dressed quickly, dropped the four letters I’d written in a mail drop by the front door and then headed for the chow hall. I was totally and completely embarrassed. I know the guy had told us about the mama sans in the heads, but hearing about it and actually exposing ones self were two different things.
I hooked up with Jimmy and Earles at the chow hall. They’d already finished eating, but they sat at the table with me while I ate. I told them, as best I could, what Guns had told me about life as a newbie. Then I told them about ‘it don’t mean nothin’.
After I finished eating, we all went back to the master-at-arms office and got our service records. We then went to the front gate and caught a bus to a point close to the center of DaNang. We got off at a ferry landing. I don’t know what the body of water was; a river; a lake; a bay; but we had to take a ferry over to the center of town. The White Elephant was just a short walk from the ferry landing on the other side.
After checking in at the Elephant, we retraced our steps and got back to Tien Sha about two hours after we’d left. We went back to the barracks and ran into some of the other guys from our flight. They’d picked up a load of scuttlebutt about the types of jobs we might get.
There was this place called Bridge Ramp. I don’t know what they did there, but it involved cargo and Mike boats. There was a place called the Lighterage. I don’t know what they did there, either, but the rumor was that the duty wasn’t that bad. Security seemed like a pretty good job. Guys assigned to the security force performed sentry duty on set shifts all over the DaNang area.
The one piece of information that everyone had picked up on concerned a place called Freight Terminal Division, Deep Water Piers.
“Man, you don’t wanna get the piers. That’s the worst job in I Corps.”
“The guys that work down there unload cargo all day long. They work twelve hour shifts and they don’t get any days off. And people get killed down there! They get run over by forklifts, they fall off the ships, they slip climbing in and out of the cargo holes and fall ten, fifteen, twenty feet to the decks below. They get cut in half by wire ropes when they break! It’s bad duty, man. Just pray you don’t get sent down there.”
As soon as I heard about the piers I had a bad feeling. I was sure as hell I’d get assigned there. Anytime I’d ever heard talk like that, that something was really bad and you didn’t want any part of it, I’d always gotten it. When I was in the ninth grade everyone had said, “You don’t want Miss Parks for English. She’s bad news. Nobody makes an A in her class.” And sure enough, who did I get? Miss Parks. And sure enough, I never made an A in her class. Nobody did! I had a bad feeling about the piers.
When we all went to lunch we ran into some of the other guys on our flight. They’d picked up some scuttlebutt, too. Word was that the armory at Camp Tien Sha, if you could get assigned there, was great duty for a gunnersmate. I was just an E-3, a gunnersmate striker, and they would probably just consider rated personnel, but I had my fingers crossed. Again, there was more bad talk about the piers. There seemed to be no doubt about it; any job in DaNang would be better than getting assigned at the piers.
After lunch, Jimmy and Earles and I roamed around Tien Sha. First off we found a little gedunk area that was run by a little Vietnamese gentleman. It was just a few blocks from transient barracks. Word was that he made a mean steak sandwich. We checked out his menu board and decided we’d come back for a late afternoon snack.
Right down the street from the gedunk area was the base theater. It didn’t run a regular schedule of movies. It basically was operational whenever the special services people felt like opening it up. That was usually in a time range of between 1 and 3 in the afternoon and between 7 and 9 in the evening. There was no list of what was playing and no list of coming attractions. They’d just post a sign that said the damn thing was open and what time the next movie would start. That would usually occur a half-hour or so before they opened the doors. Not knowing what was playing was a bummer, but it was air-conditioned! It was a natural place to hangout - no matter what was playing - during the intense mid-day heat.
The PX at Tien Sha was massive. You could buy anything and everything there, not just toilet articles and cigarettes. You could buy groceries; washing machines; stoves; refrigerators; you could even order a new car, with no applicable taxes, for delivery to a dealership of your choice back in the states. A lot of guys who’d saved up their money would do just that, and when their tour was over, their new car would be waiting for them when they got home.
My favorite camp facility was the tape library. It was in a building just down the street from the theater. There were 30 or 40 booths in the building and each booth had an Akai reel-to-reel tape recorder with a pair of headphones attached. After I was assigned a duty station, I only got back over to the tape library maybe once or twice, but during the two or three weeks I was in transient status I went there every night.
It was the greatest place; and it was air-conditioned! You could go in and check out current best selling albums that were also released on reel-to-reel tape back then. Most of the other guys listened to hard-core rock-n’-roll, but I was still heavy into folk music. My favorite folk artists were Ian & Sylvia and Gordon Lightfoot. The library didn’t have any Ian & Sylvia, but they had a copy of Gordon Lightfoot’s first album. I’d check it out over and over and over again. I’m not really sure if I ever checked out anything else. It got so bad that when the special services guy saw me come in the door he’d just grab the tape off the shelf and hand it to me; I didn’t even have to go through the check-out procedure.
Just outside the main gate at Tien Sha, between 6 and 8 in the morning and 6 and 8 in the evening, there was a laundry cart. Guys would take their laundry there and hand it over to a little Vietnamese lady who’d wash it and return it the next day. Her times of operation coincided with the shift change period for those facilities that operated two shifts a day. Your underwear would come back smelling nice and fresh; and if you wanted your utilities starched, she’d do that, too. But there was something strange about the way she’d starch your clothes.
About an hour or so after putting on a pair of utilities she’d starched, after you’d worked up a good, soaking sweat, a white watery liquid would come oozing out of your clothes. Some guys said she used water buffalo milk as her starching agent. I never knew whether that was true or not, but I would always get her to starch my clothes. Whatever she was using for a starching agent was fading the utilities faster than they would have faded otherwise; and anything I could do to get my clothes to fade quicker, I’d do. The reason was obvious: the more faded my utilities looked, the less I looked like a newbie.
Prior to going to pick up my first load of laundry, I had exchanged some MPC for piasters. But all of the guys in line ahead of me paid her in MPC. When it was my turn, she wouldn’t even take piasters; she said she’d only take MPC. I was feeling a little uneasy about it, after all, the guy had told us the first day we arrived in-country that we could only do business with the Vietnamese in piasters. I stopped feeling uneasy about it when I noticed that two of the guys ahead of me were officers. If the officers were paying her with MPC, surely it was OK. Besides, she was adamant; she would not accept piasters.
There was a really nice E.M. club right in the center of the base. To the best of my memory it wasn’t open in the morning; it would open late in the afternoon around 5:30 or 6:00. You could get beer and mixed drinks there. About once a week a U.S.O. sponsored band with exotic dancers would perform in the evening hours. Most of these groups were oriental. A majority were from the Philippines, but some were made up of Vietnamese performers. We resented the young Vietnamese men in the bands. They were all draft age. Here we were fighting for them in their country and somehow they’d managed to avoid the draft. To add insult to injury, our military was paying them to perform for us. Somehow it just didn’t seem right.
At the very back of the base, away from most of the other buildings, there was another E.M. club, but this one was different. There were slot machines in a gambling den in the back and it was perfectly legal to go in there and lose your ass every payday. A lot of young men got hooked on the slots. I lost a lot of respect for the military when I saw what was happening in the back rooms. It just didn’t seem right that it was a sanctioned facility run by the U.S. Navy.
The most annoying thing about the service at both E.M. clubs was the beverage dispensing procedure. The folks who ran these clubs seemed to go out of their way to be inhospitable. No matter what kind of beverage you wanted, soda or beer, you got whatever was available depending on what case they’d just opened when you ordered. You couldn’t walk up to the bar and order a Budweiser; you just went up and asked for a beer. If they’d just opened a case of Falstaff, that’s what you got. Same thing with the soda. You couldn’t ask for a Coke or a Pepsi; you just asked for a soda, and if they’d just opened a case of Shasta Grape, that’s what you got. Guys would just stand at the bar and not order anything. Then, when the bartender opened a case of Coke or Pepsi, every guy at the bar would be shouting and waving his money, and most of the time they’d buy five or six cans at one lick.
The pop top can had been invented by 1969, and most of the beverage manufacturers in the states were moving from the conventional slick lid to the pop top back home. But the pop top didn’t work well in Vietnam. I understand that some manufacturers made some early attempts to ship beverages with pop top lids to Nam in the mid-sixties, but the wave action at sea and the dramatic changes in temperature aboard cargo ships caused most of the cans to rupture and burst prior to arrival. I never encountered a canned beverage in Nam that had a pop top lid. Everything, beer and soda alike, was sealed with a conventional slick lid.
As a side note, I saw a well-known movie about Vietnam once, one that was nominated for an academy award or two, and in it guys were sitting in their hootch after a rough day in the bush opening pop top lids on Coke cans. That ruined the movie for me! It was a shame, too. Other than that one error, the rest of the movie seemed to be pretty accurate as to how things really were.
China Beach was an in-country R&R facility located a few miles away from Camp Tien Sha. R&R stood for Rest and Relaxation. Once you’d been in-country for a certain period of time you could put in for a three-day R&R at the facility. I suppose those of us in support could have requested an in-country R&R, too, but I never knew anybody who did. I think we all felt that that was something that should be reserved for the grunts who were really in harms way out in the boonies.
I went to China Beach on a number of occasions, but not for R&R. They had a MARS station there where you could make a phone call home via a Ham radio link. The letters M*A*R*S stood for something, but I never knew what.
You had to line up at the MARS station and sign-in to make a call. There was always a long line and it would take close to an hour to finally get to the guys who handled the phone hook-ups. Once your call was placed, if nobody was at home, or you got a busy signal, you had to come back later, you couldn’t call somebody else instead. You got one shot at it, and if you didn’t get through you’d wasted your time standing in line.
There was a twelve hour difference in Vietnam time and Georgia time. When it was 9 in the morning in Georgia, it was 9 at night in Nam. I’d always try to make my calls in the early morning. That way I’d know my family would be at home; it would be early evening in Columbus.
At China Beach, there was a main street that went from the main gate all the way to the beach. On the left side, as you walked toward the beach, was the MARS facility and a number of other buildings. I never knew what was in those buildings, I never went in any of them, but I suppose they consisted of a gedunk area, a place to show movies, and I’m sure there was an E.M. club there, too.
On the right side of the main drag as you walked toward the beach, there were barracks for the guys who were there for R&R. The R&R guys were a wild bunch. They were a mix of all the services; there were Marines, soldiers, river boat sailors and an occasional air force guy or two. I remember that every time I went to make a call there was some wild and rowdy activity going on in the barracks area. There was a lot of drinking and some obvious drunkenness; and I heard that there were frequently drug problems, too; mainly marijuana.
On our second day in Nam, Earles and Jimmy and I caught the bus to China Beach. We’d heard about it and just wanted to see the place. We thought about trying to make a phone call, but decided against it because the line was too long. We walked around for a while, watched two drunk Army guys duke it out with a couple of Marines, and then caught the bus back to the base.
We got back to Camp Tien Sha late in the afternoon. We were hungry, so we decided to go back to the gedunk stand operated by the little Vietnamese guy. We’d heard about his steak sandwiches, so each of us ordered one. They were different, that’s for sure, but they really tasted good. The meat was just a little on the tough side, and there was a tiny bit of gristle, but the sauce was great. The sauce seemed to be a combination of barbeque and soy, but whatever it was, it was delicious. Earles asked the old man what kind of meat he used.
“Bufwo,” he replied.
“Bufwo,” Earles asked with a curious look on his face?
The old man pointed off to his right. Just between two buildings we could see the barbed wire fence that marked the border of the base. Just beyond the fence, on the other side of the road, we saw a water buffalo grazing in field. The old man just smiled as he pointed toward the animal. Jimmy got a weird look on his face.
“Oh, my God! It’s water buffalo meat!”
Earles grinned one of his patented grins.
“Well, I’ll be damned. Tasty, though ... ain’t it?”
Earles and I started laughing. The old man was laughing, too. Earles and I ordered another sandwich. Jimmy excused himself and ran back to the barracks.
The extreme heat and humidity took some getting used to. Many of the guys came down with heat rash in the first few days we were there. By day two, Earles had it, and he had a monster case; his face, neck, chest and arms were totally inflamed. Everyone else had reported to sick bay as soon as they came down with the symptoms. Earles didn’t. He let his problem go totally untreated. It got so bad that I got on his case about it.
“You need to go see a doc, man. That stuff’s gonna eat you up!”
“I’ll be all right! I used to get this stuff back home. It’ll go away in a few days.”
But it didn’t go away. By day four he was hurtin’ so bad he couldn’t sleep.
“If you don’t go see a doc I’m gonna report your ass to the master-at-arms.”
“Report my ass. I don’t care.”
I didn’t report him, but somebody else did. The master-at-arms sent some of his people down and they made Earles go with them to sick bay. The doc gave him some ointment to put on the rash, and he told him not to wear any clothing over the affected area until it started to heal. But Earles didn’t use the ointment the way it was prescribed, and he continued to wear his full uniform, undershirt included.
“What the hell are you doin’,” I asked him?
“Hey, man. The Navy’ll discharge your ass for a skin condition.”
“Yea! And they’ll give you a dishonorable discharge, a medical at the least, for refusing treatment.”
“Let ‘em. I’m tired of Oz, man. I’m clickin’ my heals. I wanna go home!”
By the time our assignments came down a week later, Earles had developed a serious infection on his arms and chest.
I was eating lunch in the chow hall with Jimmy and Earles when word came down that our assignments were posted. The guy that told us said, “Sorry, Powers.” I didn’t ask him what he meant; I already knew.
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