10777About Vietnam - Part 1
- Nov 30, 2002A week or two ago, someone asked me if I ever wrote anything about
Vietnam. I said I didn't. That was a lie. Over the holiday weekend,
I was looking for a scene I had saved separate from my current book.
I didn't find it, but I came across a short story I wrote more than
two years ago. I had forgotten all about it. I have fixed it a
little and thought you might enjoy reading a different type of war
story. It is a little long, so I am submitting it in two parts. I
hope you take the time to read it.
The annual Memorial Day weekend barbecue-and-beer-bash had become a
tradition on Mike Johnson's street. Typically, the party would start
about one o'clock on Saturday afternoon, and last until everyone was
too drunk to continue. The neighbors would gather at one house or
another to eat grilled burgers, drink cold beer, and tell lies about
their kids. Everyone was about the same age, but their backgrounds
and careers varied wildly across the middle income spectrum. It made
for interesting conversations and arguments.
Mike arrived at one-thirty. He begged off the food, opting for beer
tap instead. The afternoon passed with the women in one group
swapping diet secrets and local gossip, while the men huddled around
the keg telling dirty jokes and laughing. Later, when the jokes and
the gossip turned stale, the sexes merged and the discussion turned
to religion, politics, and other taboo topics. It was so much like
the parties past that it was routine. Except for one thing, and that
was subject of the Vietnam War. This year was the twenty-fifth
anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the news media had been
wringing every last dime from it.
Two of Mike's neighbors had been in the military, but Mike was the
only one who had served in Vietnam. All of his neighbors, men and
women alike, had opinions on the war, even though they had never
been there. They had read the newspaper and magazine articles, and
watched the movies and documentaries. They believed it gave them
scholarly insight of some sort. Mike listened as his friends
parroted the views of the self proclaimed experts like they were
gospel. In a while, he excused himself and went home. He wanted to
remember Vietnam as he had lived it, not how some grim faced newsman
believed it had been.
It didn't take long to locate the battered cardboard box in his
basement. He carried it upstairs and sat it on the table. It seemed
too small to hold a years worth of the vivid memories which haunted
him. He pulled out a photo album and opened the front cover. An 8 x
10 picture of him as a young soldier filled most of the page. He
stared in envy of how handsome he'd once been. He would give his
left nut to look like that again.
He smiled wryly at the thought. Why not give both nuts? They weren't
doing him, or anyone else, much good anyway. He took a long swallow
of beer and flipped the page. The past paraded before his eyes like
a B-rated movie.
Mike had been lucky avoiding the Vietnam draft. Luckier than many of
his high school classmates. After graduation, he'd cashed in a life
insurance policy and paid for sixteen months of electronics school.
He had no great interest in electronics, but the course came with a
much- coveted student deferment from the military draft. Student
deferments were the epitome of the convoluted political thinking of
the time. `Hey, let's not kill these boys until they've had a chance
to spend all of their parent's money on higher education. Then, by
god, we'll put their schooling to good use killing a few gooks'.
Mike finished the electronics course three months after his
nineteenth birthday. For reasons known only to the gods of war, he
didn't receive his draft notice right away. He was given a physical,
but then nothing happened. Nearly seven months passed, while his
draft board stayed silent. He never contacted them to ask about his
status. That would be impolite, not to mention totally stupid. He
landed a job repairing computers, bought a new-used car, and signed
a one year lease on a furnished apartment. The airwaves were filled
with gruesome images of the Vietnam War. The draft board remained
In June of that year, everything changed. First, Mike went on a two
week vacation to Myrtle Beach with his current girlfriend. They had
a great time basking in the sun, drinking more than they should
have, and satisfying their sexual curiosity whenever the mood
struck. When he returned home, his draft notice was in the mailbox.
Apparently it had arrived about the same time that he had left for
There wasn't time to close out his affairs and still report on time
for his military induction. He gave serious thought to the idea
going to Canada, but decided everyone would think him a coward, if
he ran away. He asked for a short extension and a change of place of
induction from his home town to Washington, D.C., where he was
living. It was granted. Years later, Mike would often wonder how
that two week extension had affected his future. Things might have
turned out the same anyway, but who could really know for sure.
On June 26, 1967, Mike became the property of the U.S. Army. He was
poked, prodded, tested, and inoculated for every disease known to
man. They gave him a lousy haircut, bad fitting clothes, and over-
sized boots and shoes. Oh yeah, and a rifle, he couldn't forget the
Mike scored high on the Army's battery of tests and was offered the
chance to attend Officer Candidate School (OCS). The only catch was
that he would have to be in the Army for an extra year. In addition,
he'd heard the talk about the "90 day wonders" who went straight
from OCS to platoon leaders in the Vietnam jungle and rice paddies.
He declined the Army's dubious offer.
Basic training was at Fort Benning, Georgia, in the middle of the
blazing summer heat. Before entering boot camp, Mike had thought he
was pretty tough. After a few grueling days, he realized he was
wrong. Military training in July and August was living hell. He had
never suffered anything like it before or since.
By some twist of fate, he survived that government sponsored torture
camp. In the end, he emerged a killing machine. At least that was
what the Army kept telling him he was. He wasn't worried about
having to kill anyone, though. With his electronics and computer
training, how could the Army make any other decision except to put
him in a comfy computer room at best or the signal corps at worst?
Two weeks after graduating from boot camp Mike was attending
Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) in Fort Polk, Louisiana. He
supposed that was the Army's way of punishing him for turning down
officer's school. Fort Polk's then current claim to fame was as a
training ground for grunts, the ground-pounders, heading to Vietnam.
Each and every one of the unfortunate bastards who landed in Ft.
Polk was cannon fodder and they knew it. Emotions ran rampant. A few
people went AWOL. One had to be sent home for being unable to adjust
to military life. That was the Army's polite way of saying the man
had had a nervous breakdown.
Search and Destroy exercises replaced target practice. Jungle
Survival classes seemed entirely too short. Escape and Evasion took
on a new meaning. They were taught to fight, they learned to kill,
and they trained to die.
After AIT ended, Mike and the others from his unit were sent home
for thirty days leave. At the time he figured it was their last
chance to say their final goodbyes to friends, relatives, and
lovers. He had to admit he looked good in his dress greens with the
blue shoulder braid and the shiny brass with crossed rifles. It
identified him as something special. Something to be feared.
Something to be respected. Something to be pitied.
For Mike, those thirty days were harder than either basic training
or advanced infantry training. Everyone, including himself, was
emotional to the point of hysteria. Hardly a day went by without
someone breaking down and crying. Never a day went by without
someone looking at him like he was already dead, a walking ghost. It
By the time his leave ended, he was convinced he would come home
again, but that his return trip would be in a body bag. Everyone
else, it seemed, believed that too.
A week after he returned to duty, Mike arrived in Vietnam. Until the
Army could attach him to a unit, he was assigned to a general-work
detail at Bien Hoa, which he decided was Vietnamese for `One Hot
Fucking Place With Mosquitoes'. He spent Christmas Day filling
sandbags in the suffocating Vietnam heat. On New Year's Day he was
on his way to the city of Tuy Hoa, which he knew, without a doubt,
meant `Just As Fucking Hot'.
It was in Tuy Hoa where he got a break. For reasons understood only
by the Army's military geniuses, Mike was assigned to an artillery
battery. He supposed it did make some sort of inane sense. After
all, he'd been trained to use a gun and he knew which end of it to
stay away from. On the other hand, these guns were a lot bigger and
made a lot more noise. They had knobs and dials he didn't
understand. If he had been anyplace besides Vietnam, he might have
found the situation hilarious. But at that moment of his life, his
sense of humor was a little stained.
After two days of loafing with the artillery battery, his new
sergeant approached him. "Soldier, someone fucked up. Here are your
choices. One, you can be reassigned to an infantry unit; or two, you
can stay with us and operate a mobile searchlight."
Mike had never heard of such a thing. He had images of lugging some
huge piece of equipment through rice paddies and jungles. "Excuse
me, sergeant. What is a mobile searchlight?"
"Let me put it in simpler terms so you can get it through your thick
grunt brain. Would you rather walk around in the jungle and get your
ass blown away, or would you rather ride in a jeep and get your ass
blown away? Your choice."
Mike's mother hadn't raised any fools. He'd much rather get his ass
blown away riding in a jeep. He became a mobile searchlight
operator. The next day he was assigned to perimeter security for the
Korean 9th ROK Infantry Division at their base in Ninh Hoa. He was
one of a handful of Americans stationed there.
Ninh Hoa sat along Highway 1 in the middle of nowhere. The compound
was crawling with Koreans, who looked a lot like Vietnamese to
Mike's inexperienced eye. He wondered how many of them were actually
Viet Cong in disguise. He spent most of his first days with the
Koreans just staying away from them.
Mike and his duty partner agreed to a working arrangement with three
days on and three days off. Their job was to sit atop a hill and
shine the searchlight whenever and wherever the Korean patrols
thought they saw something. Sometimes Mike shined his light just to
kill the boredom of the long nights. Firefights between the Koreans
and the Viet Cong were a regular spectacle. Red and green tracer
rounds streaked though the air, piercing the darkness like Christmas
lights gone berserk. Sometimes soldiers died.
As time passed, he came to respect the Koreans for their discipline
and their ability to strike fear into the hearts of the Viet Cong
and the North Vietnamese regulars. Left to their own devices, the
Koreans would have won the war.
Mike turned his attention back to the album. He flipped to the next
page and stopped cold. Stevenson, Norwood, Baker, and the rest of
his Nam buddies stared out at him. They were little more than big
kids stuck in a war half way around the world. Most of them were
still in their teens. Too young to vote or buy beer, but old enough
to die for their country. Baker had never gone home. He'd been
killed by a mortar round two days after Mike had taken his picture.
It was a mistake, a fluke. The VC had been aiming for the Tactical
Operations Center but missed by three hundred feet. Baker's scramble
for shelter was cut short by a lifetime. Mike wondered how many of
the others had died since he last saw them. He wondered how many
were still alive, and if they still remembered him. He turned the
Glossy pictures of young Vietnamese women filled both pages. The
picture of Yvonne caught and held his attention. He'd made love to
her and it had killed her. He didn't have absolute proof, but he
knew it was true.
End of Vietnam Part 1 - I think this about half. For anyone who is
interested, the rest of this is how I perceived it to be after re-
uniting with my friends years later.