War Stories

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The Initiation

I had watched the fire barrel, a 55 gallon drum at the corner of the hootch for the past two weeks. It was not out of curiosity, though I was curious, but dread of what I knew was in store for me and that barrel. Each day, the crewmembers of Medevac, brought leftovers from the mess hall and dumped them inside the barrel adding to the stench of the previous day's fermenting garbage. One could hardly pass the thing on their way to the showers or latrine without being overwhelmed by the odoriferous onslaught of putrefied waste; even the smell of diesel and dung in flames, held a sweetness compared to the dreaded barrel.

I stared at the barrel with trepidation, knowing we had a common destiny, but unaware of when that time might come. I almost wished this inanimate, stinking, repository could speak; that it could forewarn me of the coming events. One of my new friends, at Medevac, had appraised me of the ritual; a kind of passage that each crewmember must endure in order to gain the acceptance of these wild crazy men of the sky. These warriors who swooped down into hot LZs to pluck the wounded from the jaws of death; men who held their grit while hoisting patients and withstanding the withering fire of Charlie Cong. I was both exhilarated and mortified at the prospect of joining their ranks; from Infantryman, to leading Montagnards, and now, to flight, yet, maintaining that razor's edge of life and death, as adrenaline coursed through one's veins. I had decided to become a Medevacer, at any cost.

Finally, the uncertainty drew to a close; about an hour before darkness came, I was informed that tonight would be the night. My initiation was at hand; the proper concoctions of rotten food, ceremonial hemp and a shot, or two, of booze having been added to the red receptacle, I was to undergo my formal christening into the unit; 15th Medevac. As crew chiefs, medics, gunners, clerks, maintenance members and others began to appear, alcohol flowed freely, but not for me. There was a reason for this, as I was later to learn. They milled around, joyously, at the prospect of my coming discomfort; waiting for the pilots to put in their appearance. Mike Vinyard, crew chief extraordinaire, had a penchant for carrying a .45 Colt Automatic, rather than the standard issue .38 Police Special that everyone else wore, except Ferg; he favored a captured Tokerev. To pass the time and, of course, heighten my discomfort, it was decided that I should be blindfolded and made to disassemble and reassemble his trusty weapon. The general attitude was, that with Mike being the only one familiar with the weapon, it would cause me great consternation completing this task.

So it was that I was placed on a lounge chair, blindfolded with Dan Brady's scarf and handed the weapon. To everyone's puzzlement, and my delight, I cleared the weapon, tore it down to its basic components, smiled, and put it back together again. Unbeknownst to the assemblage, I was on very intimate terms with the .45, as well as with a myriad other small arms. To say the least, I had gotten off on the right foot.

As darkness approached, the crowd became more raucous and the pilots appeared; having already fortified themselves with numerous rounds at the O Club. It was time to get this little party underway and, if not for my informant, I would have gone into the whole affair weary of the outcome, but with the coaching of this anonymous tipster, I had a few ideas of my own. Reedy, Arky, Brady, Tom, and others, escorted me outside to the barrel; the stinking dreaded barrel where a crowd of some, 40 to 50 members of Medevac were assembled in various stages of inebriation.

Now, all I had to do was follow instructions. Little Okie seemed to be the Master of Ceremonies, chewing that large cud of tobacco, affectionately called "The Roach". The name was derived from its appearance, looking much like the huge Florida beetle, after being used and spit from the mouth to the ground. Like the tracks of a train, you could follow Okie's movements by the discarded roaches on the ground. Several grasping hands helped me climb into the barrel of slime, while others chuckled and whispered unheard jokes. Someone handed me a beer, a hot beer; I was to chug-a-lug beer until I puked. It doesn't take a lot of hot beer in a rancid barrel to turn one's stomach so, midway through the fifth beer, I barfed. Then, to add insult to injury, eggs were broken and placed inside a steel pot, which was placed on my head, and I was instructed to sink down to my chin in the gooey slime and sing the Medevac Song. Not knowing the words, my hearty cohorts helped me with the lyrics. Then, as I again rose to a full upright position, a bayonet was placed between my teeth, in true John Wayne fashion, as Johnny Uebelacker and others snapped away with their trusty cameras. Once this was over, there was to be one final insult.

The Roach, which Okie had been coddling all this time, was removed from his mouth and offered to me. It would be an insult to refuse this cherished symbol of manhood and so, I placed it in my mouth. Little did the crowd know that my tipster had, also, informed me that no other member could refuse it, either. So, with great aplomb, after a couple of exaggerated chomps, I passed it to another of the men. He, in turn, took his chaw and passed it; over 40 men passed the roach that night.

Finally, they decided that I had been a good sport, they were drunk enough and we could remove my carcass from the barrel and throw me in the shower. I shocked everyone with a dare; there was an above ground swimming pool down by the green line and I dared them all to strip and follow me down, in the middle of the night, for a midnight swim and clean up. Medevacers were never to be outdone so, we all stripped on the spot, headed across the flight line and down to the pool. The "Old Man", Payne, even drove down in a jeep with our beer.

There we were at a pool party at two o'clock in the morning; playing volleyball in the water and having one heck of a good time. Someone, knocked the ball out of the pool and out into the barbed wire of the green line. The men manning the bunkers were beside themselves and, I guess, someone called it in. Fergy crawled through the razor wire to retrieve the ball and received the only wound that night, for his trouble, a laceration of one of his butt cheeks. Even that didn't dampen our spirits.

As a result of the report from the guard, the M.P.s arrived to break up our little party, but laughed so hard that they could hardly contain themselves. They actually talked us into returning to our own area and offered to give us an escort. There we were, 40 plus strong, naked, walking up the road in the glare of their headlights singing the Medevac Song. I was a Medevacer, officially. Acceptance was instantaneous and mutual; I had a family, now. It was the last swim we had in that pool. I suppose the V.C. decided that we didn't deserve such luxuries and, shortly thereafter, perforated our beloved pool with rockets and mortars. I would have to wait until my turn to go to the field site at LZ Mace, with a short hop to Ham Than and the South China Sea to swim again, but that crazy night in June of 1970, I'll never forget. Old gunners never forget.

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A Fire at the An Khe Theater!

Wait, wait, wait. The passage of time was beginning to exact its burdensome toll: anxiety and frayed nerves. When I had finished chow, I walked the 50 or so yards from the HHC Mess Hall to the Battalion Aid Station to await Babcock, the Dispensary driver. At around 1930 hours, several guys mildly taunted, "Are you still here? Maybe they ain't coming for you, slick. Look, there's always the club." Maybe Babcock wasn't coming. What should I believe? The scheduled 1800 hours rendezvous had long since passed. Never the less, I did not want any part of the EM club. I was not enamored with the prospect of finding delightful companionship and intellectual stimulation. Nor, did I have a thirst that needed to be quenched. If I wanted a Pepsi generation drink, I could scrounge up something. Besides, if I were inclined to drift away from the Aid Station, I would have headed over to the nearby 15th Med Medical Laboratory. Sergeant Johnson or Sergeant Anderson would welcome me, and I would bathe in the intellectual stimulation they offered.

They knew that I had been a student before Sam stamped me with the US prefix; and, they encouraged me to follow through on my plans to complete my education. They were helpful in pointing out the benefits that the GI bill offered. Moreover, through associating with these out of the ordinary NCOs, I learned things that had useful applications. By observing and discussing their work, I learned about specimen preparation and analytical procedures. The knowledge that I gained was indispensable when Dr. Packanowski asked me to perform several types of tests. Too, Anderson and Johnson always had something unusual to relate. There was the time, for instance, when Hugh O'Brien came to the Lab to have a malaria smear done. That's, Hugh O'Brien, the actor who played Wyatt Earp in the Warner Brothers TV series!

But, I suppressed the desire to visit the Lab, because an incident that occurred when I worked for Sergeant Green dusted me with distasteful psychological residue. In a sense, I was gun shy. I did not want to contend with harassment and cutting remarks. Yet, there was a glow of humor that took the edge off of my anxiety. There was that memorable time when I figured that Bell would arrive late, and I decided to saunter over to the EM club. No sooner had I walked through the door, and I was stricken by the incredulity of the vision before me. I knew this guy when I was in Basic Training at Fort Bliss, Texas! He wore the chevrons of a SP5, but he was a SP4 when he had been the Company Clerk of Delta-3-3.

"Hey, Snell!", I excitedly called out. Snell instinctively snapped his head toward the sound of my voice and fixed his gaze on me. His bespectacled face projected a quizzical look. Yeah, I know this guy, but from where? "Snell!", I repeated. "Basic Training at Bliss! Remember?" I continued to approach the bar, where he was seated. Then, the spark of recognition was ignited, and he excitedly thrust out a hand shake. "Right! Holy shit! This f_ _ _ _ _ _ Army is something else. Whoever said "small world wasn't kidding. Least not as far as the Army goes." We reminisced for hours. And, I did something that really smacked of poor judgment. I quaffed staggering quantities of rum and Coke, courtesy of SP5 Snell. The clock merrily ticked away to 2230 hours. Then, SP4 James Bell made his appearance. And, he was mad. "Man, where the f_ _ _ you been? You don't even want to know what's waiting on you!" I nodded at Snell, and in a rambling monologue, I argued that Bell was the culprit. He blew the 1800 hours rendezvous. Bell contorted his sweaty face. "Say, what? Man, you're f_ _ _ _ _ -up! Hope you like going to LBJ!"

When I arrived at the Villa, at 2300 hours, my reception committee was less than hospitable. Only skillful oratory and an act worthy of an Oscar persuaded Sergeant Green that I was fit for duty. Miraculously, spirits-induced giddiness fled from the stone, cold reality that laced me. The prospect of being sent to Bong Son was no joke. My interlude was terminated by Babcock's welcomed arrival at around 2000 hours. "Hey, Babcock!" I called out. "What's up? I hope Carney knows this ain't my fault!" Babcock waved me off. "No, uh-uh. Everything's numba one. We have a bad thing going on. The theater caught fire and a whole bunch got f _ _ _ _ _ - up." I anxiously inquired, "Any burn casualties?"

My knowledge of burns was basic - that is, burns have always been the nastiest of wounds; and, if not treated under a strict, sterile field, infection could rapidly develop, causing the patient to experience an agonizing death. Babcock shook his head, "No, nothing severe. But, we have beaucoup cuts, abrasions, facial injuries, and some broken bones the 616th will handle. " No severe burns. I was relieved. "And, what about IVs?" I asked, tentatively. I had an anti-IV disposition, due principally to my negative experiences with Sergeant Green and SP5 Harry Nelson. "Beaucoup!", Babcock drew out the last syllable. "So what else is new?", I glumly replied.

At that, I could feel the embryonic beginnings of a knot in my stomach. The night shift, especially, inflated my angst. Many were the times when, after being given the "works" by Green and Nelson, I had to deal with situations that could have reduced anyone to the dysfunctional state. I could not speak the language, I could not listen to a patient's pleas and importunities with understanding. And, I could not assuage the misunderstandings of family members and friends. Their reasoning apparently was, if the content of an IV bottle were emptied in short order, the medicine would be replaced and that would benefit their sick mother, uncle, or whomever. Far too often than I cared to recount, my efforts to follow all doctor's orders to the T, as Sergeant Green had written on the patient's logbook, were awash in a sea of tears.

Sometimes, though, the PF Medics, Thai, Thua, or Duc would mercifully rescue me and explain why the IV should not be tampered with. Fortunately, no patient was lost due to faulty IV treatment. Never the less, the persistent down-side of IV treatment had to be dealt with: collapsed veins and the resultant infiltration of IV fluid. An infiltrated IV could miraculously transform a puny arm into one of Herculean proportions. The patient also suffered from the accompanying discomfort. Additionally, there were my often abortive attempts to restart the IV. In some patients, finding an uncollapsed vein was improbable, if not impossible. Frustration, kindled by the tirades of SP4 Dave Simpson, pushed me perilously close to the limit of endurance.

Simpson had been with Charlie Company, in Phan Thiet, before he was assigned to the Dispensary. Simpson greeted Babcock and I as we pulled into the Dispensary compound, just shy of 2030 hours. Simpson briefed me on the injuries sustained, Doctor's orders, and treatments in progress. As I scanned the wards, I confirmed what Babcock had told me: there were, indeed, beaucoup patients receiving IV treatment. I struggled to achieve a semblance of inner composure. After all, Green and Nelson had DROSed , and under the oversight of Carney and Rozzelle, my situation had moderated. But Simpson's presence and a compilation of bad experiences caused my well established defense mechanism to take control: survival by not letting anyone play with my mind.

So it was that images of canned Ramar Of The Jungle scenes flashed through my mind: the Savannah was ablaze and thundering herds of elephants, rhinos, giraffes, zebras, and wildebeests were fleeing from the advancing, engulfing flames. The TV commercial for a popular kids cereal, Crispy Critters, blended into these out of place images: The one and only cereal that comes in the shape of animals! Then, the things that I imagined had happened during the fire - the confusion, panic, and stampeding- became juxtaposed with the bizarre mélange that danced and swayed through my mind. This was absolutely ludicrous as well as highly inappropriate for the current state of affairs! Yet, all I could do was laugh. Predictably, that fractured Simpson's fragile shell of tolerance; and, in his Down East accent he yelled, "What the f_ _ _ are you laughing about?" I knew I needed breathing room. So, I retreated beyond Simpson's reach. I shrugged and coolly replied, "Simpson, if I told you, you wouldn't believe me."

I could feel the nastiness of the scowl etched on his sweaty face, as I turned obliquely to face the Ward full of patients. It was another hot, sultry night in An Tuc. I hoped the generator would not quit. I had patients to attend. And...beaucoup IVs to monitor. Reflections: The An Khe Theater was a very popular center of entertainment for the locals. Films were shown, but mostly, stage performances and music were offered as live performances. Westerners would be reminded of opera if they attended such a performance. Fortunately, the structure was sturdy, and was not composed of wholly fire- prone materials. If it had been one of the usual wooden fire traps, the situation on that night, so very long ago, would have been dire beyond imagination. The people who were in need of assistance were glad that the Dispensary medical services were available that hectic night. Thankfully, casualties were relatively light. What became of the theater? Well, it is as good today as it has ever been. A tourist confirmed this by means of the color print that he brought back. A physical connection to the past sometimes can grant a measure of satisfaction. Still, though, the desire to know the things that happened during the intervening years is irrepressible.

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