War Stories

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The Initiation

I had watched the fire barrel, a 55-gallon drum at the corner of the hooch for the past two weeks. It was not out of curiosity, though I was curious, but the 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 shared 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 gaining 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 immediate 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 Tokarev. To pass the time and, of course, heighten my discomfort, I had to disassemble and reassemble his trusty weapon blindfolded. 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 essential 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 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. At the dreaded stinking barrel was a crowd of some, 40 to 50 members of Medevac 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 warm 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 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 fully 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 also had, informed me that no other member could refuse it. With great aplomb, after a couple of exaggerated chomps, I passed it to another of the men. In turn, he 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 talked us into returning to our area and offered to escort us. 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 after, perforated our beloved pool with rockets and mortars. I would have to wait until my turn to go to the field site at L.Z. 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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