Rated: E · Non-fiction · War · #2155623
One of two stories my father told us when I was growing up about his time in Viet Nam
|Before my father retired he emailed this to me & my brother. I had heard these stories before, but the way he writes gives a whole new twist to the events. Because, this story has brought tears to my eyes from laughter, I thought I would share it with you as well. |
I thought I’d take some time before age and distance blurs every memory, to write down a few of my more memorable occurrences from my time in Viet Nam; at least some of the more unique experiences.
After months and months of training, inoculations, anticipation, and an endless flight, I arrived in Da Nang late in the summer of 1968. Several days of orientation regarding current situations in the field followed, and then it was time to join the guys.
I met up with the team at The Rockpile. They were dug in along a river with steep banks which dropped off about 15 ft to the water's edge. When I describe it as a river, please don't think of it as a roiling, foamy, trout stream. Think of it as a black, stagnant, fetid, barely moving body, of what appeared to be sludge, mixed with oily water.
We were to occupy a string of bunkers along a line about 250yds long. On the right of the line was the Command Post (CP) group. Off to the left maybe 100yds away was the road out of the base camp and a bridge. Behind us perhaps 80yds were the big 175mm howitzers. I discovered quickly when those guns start a fire mission in the middle of the night; it's somewhat startling. And sleep is out of the question.
The weather was warm and dry and largely, except for running a few patrols, it was pretty easy going. I got to know the guys a bit. We played cards, ate together, chatted, one guy made hot cheese and crackers every evening out of our donated C ration cans. My concerns about my career path were abating. This was going to be okay.
We'd taken over positions previously held by the South Vietnamese army. I guess earlier heavy rains had created some gaps in the foxholes, where water had run off. This left small gullies in the fronts and sides of the holes. These geniuses had filled the holes with belts of machine gun ammo, grenades, and a couple of rocket launchers; to fend off any additional erosion. I figured a direct hit on one of those 'soil control devices' would be rather colorful.
A day’s activities quickly became rather routine. Warm and sunny afternoons spent playing cards, running the occasional patrol, taking brief naps, etc. And once a day someone collected all the empty canteens, passed a rope through the handles, and headed off downstream, toward the bridge. Later the canteens would be returned freshly filled.
Now, this is the situation in which I found myself after being thoroughly and extensively trained. The majority of the training had been required, but some extra things this eager boy scout volunteered for. So, we have this inexperienced, but highly trained and motivated lad at a base and attached to his group. For everyone else in this group, the days at the Rockpile were time off to rest and recuperate. To me, this was IT. Everything I'd trained for. Danger could be anywhere. Mines, snipers, sappers, ambushes. I was watching everything, ever alert for the snapping of a twig or the shine of a rifle barrel. It was actually somewhat difficult to hear a twig snap or even a tree fall, during daylight hours, given the amount of truck traffic on the road nearby, but still, I was ready. I was prepared. I had loaded weapons, ready to defend the base, repel boarders, shoot interlopers; whatever arose. I was There. We were living in the wilderness in extremely primitive conditions: a completely foreign existence. After all the months of preparation, I was doing IT. I was in a combat team and we were doing our thing.
After a week or so of this activity, and in the middle of a sunny afternoon, someone voiced the question. "Whose turn is it to get water?" Another voice promptly answered, "I think it's the new guy's turn." It didn't take me long to figure out that was me. So, I jumped up, dutifully collected all the empty canteens, and toodled off down the path I'd seen previous water getters take. I wandered along the river bank for a bit and the trail branched off to the right and down to the waters edge. I took this route. I could see numerous boot tracks in the mud, so I thought this must be the place we get water. I quickly filled the canteens and returned them to the guys; happy to do my part and be a contributing member. We had our evening snacks, and kept watch in turns all night, under a brilliant star filled sky.
The next morning, the sun rose, above 12 of God's sickest children. Stomach spasms, diarrhea, nausea, dizziness, lethargy, and muscle cramps are terms for people with an upset stomach. Our illness transcended those terms in the same way a paper airplane is surpassed by a stealth fighter. This wasn't sick. This was the initial stages of death. By 10am, toilet paper was priceless. One guy was blind. Our corpsman was completely out of his league. He had no clue. His training had prepared him to apply bandages; not treat victims of The Plague. And the slow passage of time wasn't helping much. It just wasn't possible to get it 'out of our systems' regardless of outside encouragement. We could have been surrounded and captured by a special needs preschool class. So, late in the afternoon a doctor was choppered in.
The doctor began by getting us all together around one of the bunkers. Some of us needed help just to move a few yards. We formed a rough circle with most of us lying on our sides moaning. Someone helped the blind guy to our little circle and the doctor began examining us. After he finished, he started inquiring about what we'd done the day before. He was certain we'd run a patrol and bought some homemade booze from a villager. Nope. Possible we’d shot a water buffalo and cooked a few steaks? Nope. He ran down a rather extensive list of things we might have done and or ingested. Some of these options would have given me reason to ponder regarding possible future adventures, had I not been so terminally sick.
The doctor, and you'd have to be a doctor to figure this out, told us that whatever we'd done; we'd all done it together. After a lengthy review of virtually every possibility and after disposing of the food and booze thing, in a fit of desperation; he addressed water. "Who went for water yesterday?" I raised my limp and slightly shaking hand. "Okay," he said, "We're getting somewhere. Now where did you get the water?" So, I wheezed back, "Out of the river." Many pairs of bleary eyes turned my way. Even the blind guy looked around me somewhere. In the stillness that followed my answer; someone croaked out, "Why didn't you use the faucet, dumb ass?" Following that question, the air was silent. Nothing moved. In fact, I don’t think anything moved in the entire country. The question just hung in the still air. Faucet? A faucet? Here? In Viet Nam? In The Wilderness? The Jungle? On the Front Lines? A faucet? Right here where I’m every watchful for an enemy attack at any minute? A faucet?
I'm sure, had anyone had an ounce of strength, I'd have been the recipient of a serious beating. Instead, the doctor gave me and everyone else, a couple of shots and told us to lie down and sleep it off. In all honesty, there was no other position for us to achieve anyway, other than prone and fetal. And very little else we could have done. But, over the next few days, we did improve. The Blind guy got his sight back. We all began to walk upright, although initially, not for too long. And I was no longer the New Guy. I'd been elevated to the Guy Who Poisoned Us.
It would take me some time to regain their trust. Even gaining the most minimal level of trust would take some effort. Yet, just when we got back to what should have passed for normal, I managed to set that process back substantially. But, that's for another day.
© Copyright 2011 Kelly