After five months in-country I received my first leave. It was a half-day in beautiful downtown Phan Thiet, Vietnam...but it almost didn't happen. I had to pick up my pass at company headquarters in the center of LZ Betty from our battalion top sergeant, Master Sergeant Ryan "Grit" Sandberger.
Mulenburg paired me with Gutcheck under the buddy system. "Phan Thiet still has lots of Vietcong symp'ythizers. It still be home-sweet-home to a whole passel of Charlies that would like nuthin' bettah than to fry y'alls asses. Lots a folks would like to kill ya out theah, so fur god sakes, stay t'gether no mattah whut happens. Do not let yur buddy out of yur sight. Stay ass-hole to ass-hole. Watch one anothah’s backs in Phan Thiet. Theat's all, now get outta here...and have a good time."
So Gutcheck and I proceeded over to Top’s tent for our passes. "Top" was a term of respect and position demanded designatory to set aside the top sergeant in the company...the Master Sergeant! The "first shirt." I only met Top one time before, when I first flew into LZ Betty. He had some soldiers help me stow some gear that I wouldn't be needing out in "the park," in the company tent for extra gear, then sent me on my way out to the perimeter to join my platoon. I never once saw him in the field. His nickname was "Grit," and he had his full name, with nickname, on a shingle above his tent...but I'd been warned. Only his best friends were allowed to call him "Grit." To all others it was off-limits. To the rest of us, it was "Top."
Gutcheck and I were amazed seeing the difference in a few hundred yards from the perimeter bunkers where we grunts spent most of our time, to the core of the LZ. "Chit, look at them spit-shined boots," Gutcheck said, "jest like stateside, right here in the Nam. Those mothah's prob’ly even have reveille. Chit, some rear echelon bugle boy ever tries to blow Taps or somethin’ like that out in 'the park,' he'd get a M-16 barr-age up his spit valve."
I joked, “These rear echelon laundry and office workers probably even have to have calisthenics drills to loosen the muscles from typing strain, or to shake out kinks to prepare them for laundry duty."
"And inspections," Gutcheck laughed.
I saw it was a whole different world. "What a life...still, I don’t think I could put up with it...not now...not here in the Nam. Not after what I’ve seen!”
"Chit, send'm out into the park," Gutcheck smiled profanely. "We'll show 'em real calisthenics."
Ottel and Egg came out of Top’s tent looking like schoolboys who'd been cooped up in their classrooms just outside the gates of the state fair, just bursting to get to the cotton candy and thrill rides. "Hurry, we don't want to miss anything, I can taste that steak at Johnny's now," Ottel said, as his eyes rolled. "There's a deuce and a half going to take us into town," he said, eyeing over his shoulder an Army two-ton truck revving up its engines. "We'll wait, but hurry...gonna leave in two minutes, with or without you."
Gutcheck and I went into the tent where Top was playing cards with some corporals and sergeants I didn't know. A lean, leathery lifer with hard steel-blue eyes and tight, no-nonsense lips, glared over his hand of cards as I walked through the tent flap. It must have been a bad hand, because Top growled with instant irritation in his voice at the interruption. "Whatta you want?"
"Sergeant...I need you to sign my pass for Phan Thiet..." I said nonchalantly, thinking his signing the pass a done deal, only a formality. Suddenly I sensed an uncomfortable chill up my back. Something was wrong. The room seemed to go icy cold, as Top frowned sullenly, looking me up and down with a sneer on his lips and a look of ill will in his eyes. He then looked back at his hand, "I fold," he said, tossing the cards down in disgust on the footlocker used for a table, turning his full attention on me, rising to his full height with a scowl on his face. He reminded me of a lion sizing up its prey before springing. "You think I oughta let you go into fuckin' town with that fuckin' pussy tickler on your lip?" He then proceeded to call my mustache, grown over several weeks out in the field of combat where shaving had especially unique difficulties, every conceivable foul word in or out of the dictionary. In a long line of filth colorfully presented, he described in intimate and disgustingly profane and slimy detail the merits of my lip caterpillar, categorizing it in derogatory terms as a utilitarian tool used to clean out the anatomy of a woman. "What makes you think I'd give a pass to some fuckin' fart-face with a pussy-straining mustache?" he growled in conclusion, with a dirty leer of great contempt distorting his face. "Get outta here before you make me throw up. Get rid of that fuckin' brush growing on your lip, and then maybe I'll consider letting you slip into town for an hour or two."
Now this floored me. It turned my smile of anticipation about Johnny's upside down. I was used to men who spewed profanity in every sentence. I mean, I walked with soldiers on the lip of death, sweat with them every day, hid in the deepest holes a man could dig with them, listening for men coming to kill us with them, humping with them, shooting to kill with them, fearing God-awful death at any moment with them. I thought I’d heard everything. But no matter how down and dirty their language got, Top was indeed the master of profanity. But the hate in his eyes, that was what I was totally unprepared for. I was unprepared for Top's most vile and nasty, mean-spirited venom to let loose, laced with hate-driven and putrid drivel flowing from his acid-tongued mouth that made me feel dirty. For some reason I didn’t know, Top felt the need at that moment to wound and insult by uttering creative and colorful obscenities. That it violated my very humanity didn't seem to matter. He had the need to crush my spirit. With hatred boiling in his eyes, he plumbed new depths in blasphemous, cursing expression. That, after all, was the point I guess...but why did he level his guns on me?
I could think of no reason, other than that I was there, he was having a bad day, and he needed someone to unload on. But I weathered the blast with no change of expression. With all his vocal and sacrilegious undertones wiped away, I heard his message coming through his obscenity, scalding and brutishly depraved, "Get rid of that fuzzy brush growing on your lip, and maybe I'll consider letting you go to town. Till then, you’re dismissed, soldier," he snarled, his eyes flashing full of hatred, vengeance and loathing for me that I couldn't understand. I mean, I had thought we were on the same side. Guess I was wrong. Top looked at me, his lips curling with contempt, like I was a roach beneath his boot. "Now, get the fuck out of here before I get you to dig a new fuckin' shitter, burning the fuckin' crap."
"But Top, I..."
"You have a hard time hearing, Grunt? You don't fuckin' understand me? Get that fuckin' hairy lip outta here. I don't want to fuckin' see it anymore, Private, you hear me?" He peered at me with a smoldering pair of the hardest eyes I'd ever seen, a tight smile tugging at the corners of his mouth like he had an animal in his sights.
I felt sandblasted with the blistering berating Top had given me, deflated as I walked out into the company street. No, more than that, I was disoriented, as empty as if he'd hit me hard in the gut with a sledgehammer. I was angry. I was confused. But most of all I was scared that before I could get away, Top was going to take away my half-day escape to Phan Thiet that I needed so much. "What's his problem?" I muttered between tight lips, as I walked out of his tent, kicking at a white-washed rock lining his walkway. "He has no right! He talks to me like that, hate to see how he treats the Charlies. He has no right, that..." At that moment I wished I had a grenade to shove down that ratty, tight, miserly, parsimonious, profane throat. I would have done it too.
“Right, chit! Top has the right to do anything he wants, chit,” Gutcheck whined. “Don’t nobuddy mess with Top...not even officers. I mean...he’s 'Top.' He’s got author’ty t’do anythin’ he damn well wants, and you, you’re still just a grunt. Ain’t nobuddy gonna hear you over him.”
Ottel and Egg had left, shrugging a “sorry ‘bout that,” shrug at my misfortune. "Try to get to Johnny’s,” they said. “We'll meet up with you there. Gotta go get a steak, get plastered, roaring-out-of-our-minds drunk." Ottel smiled, his eyes big with anticipation. "Gotta get some boom-boom girls." He smacked his lips, "My-my-my, I'm not sure yet in which order...so many delicacies."
Gutcheck and I were alone to deal with our problem, and I could tell he would much rather have been with them, or anybody else for that matter, than damnd to be with me. Gutcheck had a signed pass, but he also had the bad luck to be paired with me as his buddy. He couldn't leave the LZ without me. "Chit, what we gonna do...chit?"
Gutcheck disappeared, emerging a few moments later towing a smiling Vietnamese barber with a shaving razor. Saying I was reluctant was putting it mildly, but I submitted. The razor felt dull as if it had performed a thousand shaves without cleaning. It looked like a rusty bayonet, as it nicked and tugged at my mustache. It felt like he was hacking and yanking out one hair at a time. I was very uncomfortable having that strange Vietnamese barber with a knife that seemed to linger too long at my throat, but finally the ordeal was done with a minimum of bloodletting.
(Author's note: My uneasy suspicions concerning this barber's trustworthiness were confirmed some time later, when it was reported this very barber was killed leading VC through the concertina-wire fenceline as they overran LZ Betty. You simply could never tell who was friend in Vietnam, and who was enemy!)
When I again surrendered to Top for inspection, a holier-than-thou, self-satisfied smirk appeared on his face. He said something to a corporal at his shoulder and they both laughed. It was total humiliation, a maliciously denigrating experience. Rather than a brother-in-arms, I felt like I was a piece of meat they were inspecting on the block. He looked me up and down, but though he looked hard, he couldn't think of a reason to keep me. "Wear your helmet at all times. Keep with your fuckin' buddy, ass-hole to ass-hole at all times. Keep your fuckin' weapon close at all times. But don't lock and load a fuckin' round unless you're in fuckin' deep shit. Those are the rules...any fuckin' problem?" Top signed my pass reluctantly, with this parting word, "Grunt, I hope you have the clear understanding that I control whether you fuckin' live or die, and I don't really give a rat's ass which way it goes. I'm your god, by god! Don't you ever forget it!"
"Chit...I'm glad to get outta there," Gutcheck mumbled, as the deuce and a half taking us to Phan Thiet rumbled down the road.
I still couldn't think of anything but Top. My vision was blurry, still behind me, not to what lay ahead. I looked back at Top's retreating tent, and my stomach burned. I had to fight hard to keep the tears back. I'd been violated...my mind raped by that man who played with me, toyed with me as though I were nothing. And why? Just because he could.
Gutcheck saw me looking, felt my mood. "I didn't think Top was ever going to let us go...chit! Think I'd rather face the Charlies out on the trail than Top...he's one mean..."
"What's the difference," I said, "snipers yesterday, snipers today. The only thing that makes this one hard to take, is this guy was wearing the same uniform as me. This guy sniped at my mind."
"Chit...guess I kinda understand what you mean...but snipers out there get ya, you're down for the count, man. You're fuckin' history!
"Thewy leave gaping holes in ya," I said, "whether there or here. It's like I say, snipers yesterday...snipers today. Only today...I thought I was safe."
"Chit, there ain't no safe in the Nam...chit!"
It was a bumpy ride, and I was so tired...soon enough we stopped talking... I was walking point flank about twenty yards to the right and rear of O'Neal, who was point out front of the platoon line of march. There were large, thorny bamboo bushes all around, and several large flowering bushes, like wild rose bushes. Several banana palms fluttered in the breeze. All was quiet in the stifling Vietnamese heat…too quiet. Suddenly I heard a high pitched wailing, a sucking sound like bees buzzing by my ear...then nothing...then another burst, but by this time I was hugging ground. I saw more than heard the thwock, thwock, thwock, as dirt near my face was pocked by incoming bullets....then a split seconds silence before the whole platoon opened up on the place the bullets had come from.
"Jesus...you all right?" Ottel said, as he slammed down beside me, and continued ratling at the treeline with his machine gun. "The little rat was aiming at you that time, I swear he was."
The fact that the bastards were aiming at me wasn't lost on me. "I'm just lucky Charlie was such a bad shot," I said weakly, half scared, half angry.
A squad searched the area we figured the firing had come from, after we picked ourselves up and dusted ourselves off...but nothing. How could there be nothing! I watched the platoon and myself vanish beyond a bend...suddenly grunting awake when we hit an extra big pothole, bringing my M-16 up on line, searching, searching, still with those half-scared, half-angry thoughts sickening my stomach. But nobody noticed in the truck.
I was so tired I had fallen asleep, I guess, despite the fact I was sitting on my helmet...despite the bumpy road. I could hardly deal with the indignity Top put on me, or comprehend why he had chosen me to hassle in such a profane way. It burned in me all the bumpy way on the ride into Phan Thiet, but I put thoughts of him behind me, as Gutcheck and I went into Johnny's, the place in Phan Thiet to get an American steak, mushrooms and fried onions. For a minute you could almost believe you were back home...almost!
Ottel and Egg met us there, as promised. Ottel too had a mustache, but Top hadn't harassed him. I guess his "going off" was a momentary thing, and I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes the land mine goes off when you walk across a field in Nam, sometimes it doesn't. An infantryman just has to keep moving, and hope to God it isn't his turn to get hit with the shrapnel. Passing through Top's domain, was a lot like that.
After the steak, we hired four pedicab drivers to take us to an overlook on the South China Sea. We looked around town at the marketplace, a lazy place with people in conical straw hats lounging, people hustling, with baskets of exotic fruits and vegetables spread out in large bamboo baskets before the stalls. Dead chickens hung by their feet. Pig's squealed. Birds fluttered in their cages, adding their sing-song to the tones floating on the air from the milling throngs. Dogs were skulking around stealthily, wary of strangers moving around in churning confusion...wary of the street venders, hoping to find an unguarded morsel. There were numerous Kodak moments with Vietnamese in big straw, conical hats, at the marketplace, or cooking dinner on the sidewalks.
Then came the highlight of the trip for my three buddies. They had been smiling at the thought of it...salivating might be a better word, with glazed eyes, and gritty anticipation in their voices since we left Betty. They asked our pedicab drivers to take them to the local boom-boom whorehouse.
The drivers smiled. They knew the well-beaten way. "We find you numbah one girls. They so horny, love you a long time," Chou, the lead cyclist grinned as he uttered the practiced phrase. "Beacoup soldier go there. You see. You like!"
I wasn't planning on imbibing. I was just going along for the ride, on the buddy system you understand...but I must admit I was curious. After a series of back alley and side road jaunts from place to place looking for where the local establishment had set up for the day, we went into a dark hooch and saw a bevy of young, pimply, plain Vietnamese girls. I was less than enthused. The other three with me had been drinking since we left Johnny's, and seemed to think they'd found the golden mother lode.
Each of my buddies picked out a girl and retired behind a blanket hung around a series of cots in the one room hooch. Meanwhile, I just melted back and sat on a stern, white-washed chair in the "waiting room," despite the protestations of Mamasan, the Madam, "Plenty good girl to boom-boom." She kept repeating, "They so horny...they love you a long time." Now and then one of the girls would cozy up to me and ask if I wanted to go "boom-boom," but each time I backed off. Now and then Mamasan would bring this girl or that up to me, pushing her into my face, asking "What you think? ...numbah one girl...she like you so much...have open place...you boom-boom," but each time I politely declined.
Shortly, creaking cots, pleasure sounds and sighs filled the dingy enclosure...except for the cubicle where Gutcheck had gone. His girl kept looking up over the blankets, sing-songing something that made the other girls giggle, and then vanishing again.
She had made several of these appearances to a room full of giggles before I asked the Mamasan what was going on. She looked at Papasan sitting at a table by the door, and he smiled a toothless beetle-juiced, blackened, red-rust grin. "She don' know whut to do," she looked concerned, and the girls sitting on benches around the room giggled again. "He can't get up...she good girl," she said in broken English, "numbah one girl, you know. She try and try, but can't keep trying. What she gonna do?"
What could I do but smile and shrug. Ottel and Egg came out of their cubicles with satisfied looks. Ottel wobbled over and draped his arms around my shoulders gushing, "S'great Jacob...s'great. You're m'bestest friend, y'know that, Jacob...m'bestest friend in the whole world. You try her," he pulled over the girl he had just finished with, offering her to me, then he and Egg shuffled out the door.
"You want boom-boom?" cooed the girl Ottel had thrust into my arms. "I love you long time!"
I just shook my head no. "Not now, thanks anyway." But I couldn't leave. Gutcheck was still involved behind the blankets...and he was my buddy.
When Ottel's girl persisted, I even said, "I can't...have no money," and she got a sad look. Mamasan overheard. A few minutes later she brought up a girl, "No money, too much bad...she boom-boom anyway. GI numbah one...pay 'nothah time."
Now this was quite a deal they were offering me, right? Right! As a defensive act as much as anything else, thinking there couldn't be an understanding of any more personal reasons, and because I thought it safe, I flirted with the old, wrinkly Mamasan with beetle-juice stained teeth. "I couldn't go with these other girls, Mamasan," I told her... "Because, uh, well, you see Mamasan, you're the one has my eye." Cutting an eye at the old Papasan by the door, she said, "Oh, no can do...Papasan no like." That only served to make me more brave, carrying it further with great confidence that I had found the foolproof excuse. I thought I was safe. There was no way anything was going to happen with Papasan watching. Every time the old Mamasan would thrust another girl at me, I would say, "Mamasan, you know I couldn't think of boom-booming one of these girls, because Mamasan, you have my heart. You have a mature beauty none of these babysans have," I said, laying it on thick...too thick as it turned out. "Mamasan, you have the great experience life has given you. Your knowledge...your wisdom, they make you very desirable," ...that kind of shapoopi.
I was safe, I reasoned. At least it kept the girls out of my face. After all, Papasan was still sitting there, looking like he wasn't going anywhere. I kept teasing Mamasan, back and forth, but she kept giggling, "Papasan no like. No can do. Papasan no like."
I figured my goose was cooked when about fifteen minutes later she snuggled up to put her old wrinkled arms around me, smiling coyly, her black beetle-juice stained teeth a real turn-on, "Papasan gone now..."
Sure enough, Papasan's chair was empty, but lucky for me, Gutcheck staggered up at just that moment. He'd finally given up, or the frustrated girl got fed up and shoved him out of their cubicle. I pushed away from the Mamasan, discreetly tactful of course, saying "No time now...sorry...no time, got to go," looking at my watch, "must be back...big trouble I not back...maybe another time." I couldn't get out the door fast enough.
But the good times in Phan Thiet were over too fast. Before we knew it we were back at the war, back on line in our bunkers at LZ Betty.
Nigel was reading a copy of “Stars and Stripes,” as Gutcheck and I tossed our steel pots we had worn into town on top of the sandbags. Ottel and Egg hadn't come back yet, as Nigel started reading aloud. "You believe this? 'The way out place for the 'In Crowd' this season is, would you believe...South Vietnam,'" he read. "Says 45,000 tourists came to see the war last year."
"Why would they want to come here? I mean, we're here because we have to be here, but they don't."
"Says here, 'Some tourists don't want to get away from it all. They want to go see where the action is. The balmy tropical nights, the attraction of the Orient, and the war, all combine to lure an ever-increasing number of spectators. Government figures show that as the number of US troops in the country doubled in the past year, so did the number of tourists.'"
"Chit, they can stay in my foxhole for free. I'll giv'm a place they can't get away from, they want."
"Let me see that," I said, taking a look at the crumpled up paper. "It says 'Tourists spent $3 million last year. For their money they got less than memorable food, overpriced and under-cleaned hotel rooms, and a front row grandstand seat at the world's currently biggest war.' I guess people always rubberneck at accidents, that's true. There's always gonna be ambulance chasers."
"Chit, pay good money to come here, chit," Gutcheck grumbled. "They can take my place for nuthin', man...any day."
"Ha," says Nigel, as he took the paper, "I gotta foxhole I’ll let ‘em use dirt cheap. I can clean it out right now...give’m a right good view of the action, it will. And now that the monsoons are over it’s even dry...hardly any standing water. I’d even let’m heft my rifle, and you don’t bother the scorpions, they won’t bother you. Whatta deal!”
Everyone seemed caught up in his own thoughts for a moment, till Nigel again broke in. “Good Lord, would you look at that.”
I took the paper, and looked where he was pointing. “Says here, 'The government doesn't mention the war. The closest they come to any mention of violence is the suggestion that, South Vietnam offers the thrills of big game hunting.' Says 'Before the guerrilla war flooded the countryside there was considerable tiger and elephant hunting, but guides now report that with the human hunting going on, the tigers tend to become man-eaters prowling the sites of recent battles.' I guess that's just another legacy we're leaving Vietnam," I said. "Vietnam needs something to go along with the Agent Orange cocktails that killed their forests and polluted their water, and the billion or so booby traps that will take lifetimes to clear. Now we've given them a generation of man-eating tigers...just another thing they have to thank us for!"
Georgia had been quiet till now, pretending he was asleep, or hung over, or something like that. He took the paper I had tossed on the sandbags. "The government tourist office suggests a ‘Don’t miss,’ trip to Da Lat, the cool mountain resort. Says a Vietcong unit outside the city recently ambushed an American highway convoy, but airplanes still run safely from Saigon to the highlands for $11.90 round trip. It says here 'the royal palaces in the ancient Imperial City of Hue appear built for snapshots, and native dancers perform on call.'"
"Chit, can't be better than the boom-boom girls today, eh amigo?" Gutcheck said, nudging my shoulders. "They did the dance of love."
I smiled weakly at the remembrance, and wondered for a moment at his memory, then returning to the paper, "Who’d have ever thought they’d sell the war as a tourist attraction? What panache," I said, ignoring Gutcheck. "What unmitigated gall! Says here, 'The Hue city government has urged all residents to dig mortar shelters, but the sporadic fighting between U.S. Marines and three Communist divisions a few miles to the northwest does not disturb the warm, sleepy atmosphere along the Perfume River.' Can you believe this stuff? It says, ‘The favorite spots for war-watchers are the rooftops of Saigon's Caravelle and Majestic hotels, both having bar overlooks with good night views of helicopters pouring tracer bullets into guerrilla positions south of the city, and an unparalleled view of the rocket fire over Tan Son Nhut Airport.’"
"People like fireworks," Georgia said, "and you can't beat Vietnam for fireworks, I guar-an-tee."
"Chit, I'll show 'em fireworks. Chit!"
"It goes on to say, 'A relative in the military is the attraction for some tourists, while others come to see the country in which history is being made, as important in their lives as almost any other world capital. Many frankly seek a whiff of excitement. Pretty girls in traditional Vietnamese dresses against an exotic tropical background are perhaps the highlight of a tourist's visit to Vietnam.'"
Mulenburg and Morgan came over, kind of edgy-like, when the edges of twilight made long shadows form from the ripples of sand surrounding our bunker. "Ottel and Robbins check in yet?"
"Just missed 'em, Sarge," Shoot called out from inside the bunker where he was playing cards with four blacks from the third Platoon. "Think he said he was goin' to the latrine."
Mulenburg glanced towards the latrine area, but didn't budge, as he knew it was a smoke screen to cover for them. He wouldn't expect anything less. "Suppos'd ter check in an hour ago, y'all know...gonna be hell to pay."
"I'll tell them to get right down and report in soon's they get back from the crapper," Shoot replied, trying hard to hide the chuckle...but not too hard.
Gutchuck and I hadn't seen them after we left the boom-boom palace, Ottel saying something like, "Now let's go get drunk."
When Mulenburg came back twenty minutes later, really looking worried, Shoot said, "You just missed'm again, Sarge. Just went up to the company headquarters tent...prob'ly oughta try there."
"Well I just hope't they know better than to be in Phan Thiet at night," Mulenburg said. "It's not a safe place't be."
Thirty minutes later the MP's escorted the two in on rubbery legs, stinking, unequivocally drunk. Ottel oozed over to me doing a Groucho Marks imitation half-walk, half-crawl, and put his arms around my neck. "Jacob," he slobbered, "Your mhy bhestest frien' in the whole damned whorld," he said, draping his arms with his whole weight on me, "mhy bhestest frien'." Then he stumbled over to his poncho liner and fell face first into it.
"Out for the night," Georgia snickered.
"Think they're all right?" I asked.
"Yah," Shoot chuckled, "they be feelin' no pain."
Nigel chuckled, "What they gonna do...send his ass to his room?"
"Chit, send that boy to the front,” Gutcheck sneered, "chit."