Military history

SOMETHING IS SMOKING AT FIRE BASE ALPHA

Chan healed up first and was sent back to the bush. A week later the ax of health fell on me. The flight back to Da Nang gave me too much time to think. By the time we landed, my dread of going back to the bush was close to plain old fear. A few minutes after landing, a beer-bellied sergeant with a deep Southern accent pointed me toward a row of six big deuce-and-a-halfs with the engines already rumbling.

“That’s a convoy of Seventh Marines.” He clenched the remains of what looked like a week-old cigar between his teeth. “They’re goin’ to An Hoa. Tell ’em you’re hitchin’ a ride.”

“What about a weapon? I don’t have a weapon.” Two Phantom fighters roared down the airstrip and shot into the sky.

“What?” he shouted.

“I don’t have a weapon!” I shouted back.

“Pick one up at An Hoa.” He shrugged his shoulders. “It’s only twenty-five miles.”

“I know how far it is. There’s a war going on out there, Sergeant.”

“You got a whole company in those trucks. I’m sure they’ll take real good care of you.”

For the smallest part of a moment I tried to assess my chances of not going to the brig if I decked this fat jerk. No chance. The trucks honked their horns, then began moving. I gave up trying to reason with the idiot and ran for the trucks. As the first two started picking up speed, clouds of dust and dirt rolled from under the big wheels. By the time I reached the tailgate of the third truck in line, I was no longer hospital clean. Two Marines held out the butt of their M16s. I grabbed hold and put a right boot on the edge of the tailgate. They hoisted me in. I spit out a mouthful of dirt. “Thanks.”

“Are you a boot?” a voice asked. I turned and saw a big black Marine with corporal stripes drawn on the front of his camouflaged helmet cover. A toothpick hung out of one side of his mouth, and a scrungy-looking beard covered his face. For an instant I felt insulted. Then I realized I had on new boots and new utilities.

“Where did you get that NVA pack?” he asked.

“I’m not a boot. I’m just coming back from Cam Rahn Bay.”

“You get hit?”

“Yeah.”

“Scoot over and give the man a seat.” He nudged the man beside him. His voice sounded friendlier.

I fell forward as the truck hit a small canyon in the road, landing where I was supposed to sit. A whiff of body odor from the men around me nearly brought tears to my eyes. These guys were grunts all right. I had never noticed how bad we smelled. Funny how bad odors don’t affect you when you’re part of the problem.

“Where’s your weapon?” the corporal asked.

“They didn’t issue me one. They told me to wait till I get to An Hoa.”

“Boy, you’re somebody’s fool!” he said, then laughed.

“Are we going through Dogpatch?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

The already insufferable odor was getting worse. I stood up to get a look at Dogpatch. Actually I just wanted some fresh dusty air. Dogpatch was a group of plywood shacks and bamboo hootches along the side of the potted dirt road between Da Nang and Hill 327. There was nothing special about it except the name. It made a good reference point, since most Marines had been through it at one time or another.

Tall bamboo fence poles with three strands of rusty wire lined both sides of the road most of the way to keep the water buffalo away. Strangely enough, all the people were missing. Normally the kids would be shouting for handouts as we drove by. We rumbled by a shack on the left with a tin roof and sun-faded red cloth hanging where a door should have been. Between the house and the dusty road stood a piece of sturdy American chain-link fence stretched between two solid cement poles. A boyish face peeked from behind the red cloth. Fears of an ambush flashed through my mind. I looked ahead to the lead truck, instinctively feeling for my weapon, then fighting off a surge of panic.

Suddenly the cab of the lead truck lifted into the air, bringing the truck onto its back wheels like a horse rearing for a fight. One Marine flew from the truck and landed on the road. Two more fell over the tailgate and into the road and were almost run over by the second truck in the convoy. A deadening explosion followed. The convoy stopped. An orange and red ball of fire shot past the cab of the wounded truck and billowed into the blue air, then quickly evaporated into dark black clouds. The cab of the wounded truck crashed back to earth with a flat thud. Men scrambled out of the idling trucks. Everyone was shouting and pointing and running for the edge of the road to look for cover. I found mine beside the black corporal and regretted not punching the fat sergeant.

The corporal looked at me and laughed. “Somebody’s fool.”

The ambush never came. It was just a land mine. Every morning sweepers cleared the road of mines and every night the VC laid more. This one had been laid after the sweep, and the villagers in Dogpatch knew about it. Twenty minutes later a bulldozer from Da Nang pushed the smoking truck off the road and we started for An Hoa again. The only casualty was the driver. He had lost both legs. I couldn’t help wanting to do things the Korean way. If they got ambushed or caught sniper rounds from a village in Vietnam, they leveled the village. But then, they were fighting a war, and we were fighting a police action.

The rest of the trip went by uneventfully. In forty minutes we reached An Hoa. I bid farewell to the Seventh Marines and started walking toward the Fifth Marines HQ. Nothing had changed. It was hot, and artillery kept it noisy. A layer of dust an inch thick covered everything, and it smelled like the inside of the New York sewer system. The tubes were the worst offender. They were open urinals, and at 115 degrees, they were always upwind. But compared to the bush, An Hoa was still a slice of heaven. For a minute or two I debated the pros and cons of reporting in, but I was too cowardly to go AWOL, so I finally forced myself into the Fifth Marines headquarters, a big dusty tent surrounded by sandbags.

I pulled open a screen flap and peeked in. A regimental clerk pounded away on a big IBM typewriter.

“Excuse me, Corporal.”

He stopped typing and looked at me like I was bothering him. “What do you want?” he barked.

I don’t like this guy, I thought. What is this pogue doing sitting here camouflaged from head to foot behind a typewriter? “Real cute camouflage, Corporal. Know where a grunt might find some?”

“You better have a reason for being here, PFC.”

I stepped up and inside the tent. It had a wood floor that was raised a foot off the ground. Half of the tent looked like the colonel’s sleeping quarters, separated by a camouflaged screen. To the right of the typewriter was a long table covered with maps. A large posterboard that looked like a graph hung on the wall behind the table. On top of the graph in large red letters someone had neatly printed SCOREBOARD. I handed the corporal my release from the hospital and orders to return to duty.

“Alpha Company, First Battalion, Fifth Marines,” I said.

“You picked a bad time to come back, wise guy,” he snickered. For an instant I thought about punching him. Then I remembered Tijuana and the brig. I decided to be forgiving.

“It’s always bad out there, Corporal. What’s up?”

“We just sent out three gunships for the Second Platoon. They hit something big over in the Arizona Territory.”

“Any medevacs?”

“Not yet.” He dragged the words out as though he were bored. “We got resupplies going out in a couple of minutes.” He stood up from the typewriter and walked to the other side of the tent. He sat down in front of a large radio and called the airstrip. “Charlie-Tango this is Fi-yiv-Romeo H.Q.… Over.… Hold Chop-Wun for Alpha Two. We got a rider.… Over.”

While he talked to the airstrip I couldn’t resist the pull of an unfinished letter beside his typewriter. It practically reached up and begged me to read it, so I did.

Dearest Susan,

Each day and night the war takes its toll upon me. I’ve lain in this muddy trench for two days now, waiting for the enemy to attack…

“Get away from that typewriter!” the corporal shouted from his radio. His face was as red as a sunburned drunk. I started laughing at his face as much as at the letter.

“I bet this is why you pogues need the camouflage.”

“You better watch your mouth, PFC. Your next meal might be in the brig. Your chopper is waiting. Dispersing is next door. Tell them I said to issue you a weapon, and beat feet over to the chopper pad. And for your information, I’m writing a book about the war!” He looked nervous. He turned back to his radio and picked up a pen. He started to write with the wrong end.

“Be careful, Corporal. You’ll get ink on your camouflage.” I walked out of the tent utterly pleased with my last comment and unable to restrain my laughter.

I picked up an M16 at dispersing and headed for the airstrip. The smile didn’t leave my face until the chopper left the ground. Five minutes later the safety of An Hoa was a brown dot on a green horizon. The sun was starting to drop. I could see the pilot and copilot leaning toward each other, shouting back and forth over the noise of the engine, then looking back at me. The copilot unbuckled himself from his cockpit seat and came my way. He bent down on one knee in front of me, removed his dark sunglasses, and shouted, “Your unit is under fire! We’ve been called off! We’re dropping you off at Fire Base Alpha!”

“Why?” I shouted over the roaring engine.

“Another chopper will pick you up tomorrow! We aren’t going back to An Hoa!” He stood up and made his way back to the cockpit. Almost immediately the CH-46 helicopter started downward. I stuck my face against a glass portal. We circled downward toward a large, muddy hill, the top of which had been bulldozed flat. It bristled with artillery barrels sticking above a network of sandbag bunkers. Concertina wire around the hill looked to be thirty to forty yards thick. We set down on a big square piece of corrugated steel matting. The copilot gave me a thumbs up and I jumped out. I nearly fell on my face. I’d forgotten how heavy a full pack, canteens, flak jacket, rifle, and ammo could be. The CH-46 lifted off, its giant rotors blew me forward as I tried to hold my helmet on. After it had pulled away, a cool breeze hit me, the kind of breeze we never felt in the stifling jungle below.

I felt ridiculously conspicuous standing on the landing pad with no idea of what I was supposed to do. A helmeted head popped up out of an underground bunker twenty-five meters to my left with two huge antennas sticking out of the top of it. He waved me over. In the center of the compound stood a flagpole. A yellowish South Vietnamese flag with three horizontal red stripes hung limp beneath Old Glory. Beside the flagpole, resting atop a fifteen-foot post, sat a large wooden birdhouse. Under it, a big, bearded Paul Bunyan of a Marine wearing nothing but cut-off trousers sat in a lawn chair, throwing seeds to a group of brightly colored birds and drinking a beer. Judging from his golden tan, this wasn’t the first time he’d done this.

As I neared the man who had waved, I realized he had a lieutenant’s bar painted black on his helmet. I wasn’t sure whether to salute or not. I decided that they probably considered this a combat area. No salute.

“You’re just here for the night, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“See that bunker over there? The one closest to that big bearded guy?” he pointed.

“Yes, sir.”

“Go over there and tell the men lying in it that you’ll be bunkin’ there tonight.” He turned and disappeared into his sandbag cave. I looked around to see if anyone else was aboveground besides me and the bird feeder. There wasn’t a soul visible. Must not be too worried about getting hit, I thought. I walked over to the bird feeder. He turned toward me as I got close, revealing blue eyes surrounded by a network of bright red blood vessels. I hadn’t seen eyes that bloodshot since Tijuana.

“Yeah, bro, what do you need?” His voice seemed to come from his stomach.

“The lieutenant told me to bunk in here for the night.”

“Where ya coming from?”

“Cam Rahn Bay,” I answered.

“You get hit?” His eyes looked fully open for the first time. He sat up in his chair.

“Yeah. About a month and a half ago.”

“Come on in, man. I’ll introduce you to the guys.” He stood up slowly, as if the motion weren’t easy. “What’s your MOS?”

“0331.”

“Machine gunner? God, that’s awful! Come on in.”

I followed him down four sandbagged steps. We bent through a narrow doorway and into a twelve-by-twelve-foot sandbag room with cots against all four walls. A fat candle flickering from a small wooden shelf provided the only light besides the shafts of the setting sun streaking through the doorway. A thin, mustached, and shirtless Marine rested comfortably on a camouflaged poncho liner draped over his cot, studying the foldout in a Playboy magazine with the intensity of a student facing finals.

On another cot, against the opposite wall, lay another prone Marine, this one face down and snoring peacefully under a bushy head of blond hair. Vintage Playboy fold-outs ‘sixty-six through ‘sixty-seven covered the wall behind the snorer.

“We got company for the night, comrades,” the bird feeder announced. The snorer kept snoring. The reader looked up, nodded once, and went back to reading. “Don’t pay attention to these two, Gunner. We had a little blowout last night.”

“Little!” the reader said with a tired chuckle. “We got stoned out of our minds!”

“That’s your cot. What’s your name?” the bird feeder asked. “I’m Bill.”

“Better known as Wild Man,” the reader said. “I’m Joe Constantine.”

“Better known as Surfin’ Joe,” Wild Man countered.

“And this is Banger Berkeley Adams. He claims to have banged every girl in Berkeley, California,” Surfin’ Joe said.

“We’re all from California. Where you from?” Wild Man asked.

“I’m John Clark.” I suddenly felt that my name was terribly insufficient, too close to John Doe. “I’m from Florida.”

“Far out!” Surfin’ Joe exclaimed. “You ever catch any waves at Daytona?”

“Here, have a hit.” Wild Man handed me a smoking hand-rolled cigarette.

“No thanks. I don’t smoke.”

“This ain’t no cigarette, Marine.” He held it closer. I took it from him.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s a joint, man. You know, weed.” I knew that if I looked as ignorant as I felt right now I was one sorry sight.

“Look, I don’t know anything about this stuff. I’ve never even seen it before except in a movie once they showed us in school. Showed people going crazy and crashing—”

“That was a bunch of bull!” Wild Man blurted out. Then he started laughing.

“We used to bring joints into those movies and pass them around while the lights were out,” Surfin’ Joe said. Then he started laughing too.

“You’ve never seen grass before?” Wild Man asked in disbelief.

“I thought Florida was cool!” Surfin’ Joe said.

So these were the infamous California Marines, I thought. My DI always said there were more fags and freaks in California than the rest of the planet combined.

“I thought you guys would get some great weed out in the bush,” Wild Man said.

“Are you serious?” I said. “Haven’t you guys ever been in the bush? You sit around smoking grass out there and you’d die. If the gooks don’t kill you then your own men probably would.”

“Well, this ain’t exactly downtown Saigon,” Joe said sarcastically.

“This is R&R to the grunts, and you know it,” Wild Man snapped at Joe. “You feel like trading places with him?”

“Fat chance, bro!” Joe said. He chuckled and turned to me. “What are you doing here, anyway?”

“I’m coming back from Cam Rahn Bay.”

“You get hit?” Joe asked with renewed interest.

“Yeah,” I said, trying to hide my bulging pride. “My unit was under fire so the chopper dropped me off here till tomorrow.”

“Who are you with?” Joe asked.

“Alpha, One-Five.”

“Really!” Wild Man said. “We fire for you guys sometimes.”

“One-Five!” Joe said. “That’s Staff Sergeant Morey’s outfit! Do you know ol’ Morey?”

“Yeah. Not real well though. He’s in Third Platoon most of the time, but sometimes he comes with us, and sometimes my gun team goes with them.”

“He’s a great guy. He was ranking staff in my unit at ITR,” Joe said. “Did you know that guy is on his third war?”

“Yeah, I know. We get on him every time we see him.”

“Why?”

“That guy’s been through Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, and Chosin Reservoir as a grunt and never got a scratch. Not even a piece of shrapnel. So we got a running joke about him disappearing when the shooting starts. It’s all in fun, though.”

“Does he still have that droopy mustache that curls around the corners of his mouth?”

“Yep. That’s him. Always looks pale,” I said.

“Even in the bush?” Joe exclaimed.

“Yep.”

“Look, if you’re staying here all night, you might as well get loaded with us. You won’t be stoned tomorrow.” Wild Man said. He relit the joint.

“But I don’t even smoke cigarettes. I can’t inhale smoke.”

“It’s easy,” Wild Man said as he passed the joint to Joe.

“Yeah, watch. Just take a big hit into your lungs like this.” Joe inhaled until his cheeks looked flush. “Then hold it down for as long as you can.” He sat up on the cot. Tiny puffs of smoke floated out of his mouth with each word. He passed it to me. I took hold of it with my forefinger and thumb. Something popped inside, breaking off the crimson ash. I stomped it out on the hard dirt floor.

“What was that?” I asked.

“Just a seed,” Wild Man said. “Here.” He lit a match and held it out. I put the joint to my mouth and leaned forward. The first puff told me why they called it weed. It tasted like burning weed. My throat closed to keep the smoke out of my lungs, but I forced it down. It came right back up, followed by a month’s worth of coughs that brought tears to my eyes.

“That’s okay. Everybody does that until they get used to it,” Joe said.

“Since this is your first time …” Wild Man said with a huge grin surrounded by hair. He reached under his cot and pulled out a cigar box. He opened it and pulled out a ten-inch-long, burnt-orange cigar with the circumference of a fifty-cent piece. Joe started laughing at the sight of it. “You ever heard of a Ban-San Bomber?” Wild Man asked.

I shook my head and coughed again. Wild Man held the huge cigar up and marveled at its beauty. Joe held out his hand. “Here. Let me smell it.” Wild Man handed him the cigar and Joe ran it by his nose twice. “Far out, man. Here. You do the honors.” Joe handed me the cigar.

“If we’re going to do the Bomber, let’s do it right, man. Let’s have some sounds!” Wild Man said. He pointed under the still-sleeping Berkeley Banger’s cot. It looked like an expensive radio, I thought.

“Where do you get stuff like that in Nam?” I asked.

“You don’t, man,” Joe answered. “Banger got that in Bangkok on R&R.”

“You ever get to listen to AFR, man?” Wild Man asked.

“What?”

“Armed Forces Radio.”

“You can’t have a radio in the bush,” I said.

“Yeah, of course. Stupid question,” Wild Man acknowledged. “Well, go on. Light up.”

“And this is Specialist 4 Robert Townsend, the enlisted man’s DJ in sunny Saigon! This is for Seaman First Class Frank Soper aboard the Sanctuary: The Doors, Jim Morrison, and ‘Riders on the Storm.’

“Talk about skatin’ duty. Can you imagine coming over here and being a disc jockey or sitting on a ship the whole time?” Joe asked, not really expecting an answer.

I took the first puff off the Ban-San Bomber. It tasted like the tailpipe of somebody’s truck. Wild Man handed me an unopened fifth of OFC Canadian whiskey. “Take a shot and swallow that smoke.” I handed the Bomber to Joe and started coughing up smoke again. “Go ahead, take a swallow.”

I opened up the bottle and downed three big gulps. When the burning subsided, I decided I felt pretty good. Joe and Wild Man kept staring at me with funny little grins on their faces, as if they knew something I didn’t. Joe passed the Bomber to Wild Man. He took a long, slow puff, his hairy, barrel-shaped chest expanding farther and farther as he filled it with smoke. When he couldn’t take any more, he handed it to me again. I was determined to keep the smoke down this time just to see what would happen. I inhaled more slowly, fighting back a cough all the way to my lungs.

“That’s it, that’s it. Now quick take a shot of whiskey.” Wild Man handed me the bottle. I handed Joe the Bomber. I gulped. “Now hold it in. Don’t let that smoke out!” My eyes bulged from the strain. It felt like the smoke was leaking from my ears. That tailpipe must have had wheels attached to it, I thought. I coughed. A cloud of white smoke shot out of my lungs. My eyes watered. The air became dense and resinous. I followed a column of smoke through the door and into the dark sky. I felt a nudge.

“Here.”

Wild Man handed me the half-empty whiskey bottle.

“Aren’t you worried about getting caught?” I asked. “What if the lieutenant comes rolling in here?”

“He knows better. I’ll kick his butt if he comes in here,” Wild Man said.

“I don’t see what’s so great about this stuff. I don’t feel a thing.”

Joe and Wild Man started laughing again. This time I laughed with them. Wild Man inhaled another long drag off the Bomber and handed it to me. “Here.” He forced the word out while trying to hold the smoke in. “You ain’t no Marine if you don’t keep it down this time.”

I took the Bomber and sucked in as much smoke as I could. I started feeling dizzy. I exhaled the smoke slowly, trying not to cough. Finally the smoke emptied from my lungs. I felt deflated.

“Did you guys notice that it’s dark outside?” I said.

Wild Man laughed triumphantly. Joe quickly followed, bursting into a loud cackle. “ ‘I don’t see what’s so great about this stuff,’ ” Joe said mockingly, then started laughing again.

“Fire in the hole!” A shout from outside echoed through the bunker. Suddenly one of the big guns fired. “Man your guns!” another voice shouted. Boots running, getting closer. “Man your guns!” Wild Man put the Bomber out, grabbed his helmet from a nail on the wall, and darted through the door. The snoring blonde awoke with a startled jump, shook his head, grabbed his helmet from under his cot, and ran out. Joe got up slowly, tightened the laces on one boot, leisurely pulled a green T-shirt on, and casually walked out the door.

“Hey! Are we getting hit?” I shouted at Joe.

He peeked back in. “No. It’s just a fire mission. Sit tight. Have another toke off the Bomber. We’ll be right back.” He turned and disappeared up the steps. I leaned back on my cot. My head felt a little off center. Funny. I’d only heard one round. Probably a spotter round. My rifle, I thought. Why am I holding my rifle? I leaned the rifle against the end of my cot.

“For the MPs of Saigon … Donovan.”

“Sunshine came softly through my window today.…”

I love that song, I thought. Reminds me of Barbara Windham, what a perfect face.…I think I’ll drink to that.

“We’re back!” Wild Man’s hoarse voice interrupted Donovan. Joe came in behind Wild Man. He threw his helmet on the ground.

“Light up that Bomber!” Joe shouted.

“Yeah, give me a hit off that thing,” Banger Berkeley added as he came in behind Joe. He plopped down on his cot, grabbed the bottle off the floor, and took a swig. Wild Man lit up the Bomber and passed it to me.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Sounded like the gooks were either too close to call in artillery or else they took off,” Joe said. “Pass me the whiskey.”

I inhaled another huge amount of smoke, this time without coughing, and passed the Bomber to Berkeley Banger. He wasn’t good-lookin’ enough to be the stud he claimed to be. A long nose and thin lips. Downright ugly. Wild Man nudged me again. “Here.” He handed me the whiskey. “You ain’t no Marine if you can’t chug it to the OFC on the label.”

I did.

The rest of the night blurred by. Pieces of the night floated through my brain in between the pounding of the world’s most horrible headache. Darts flew at the big nose of a picture of Lyndon Johnson, then I was dangling from the barrel of a giant cannon and falling into space.

“You got a chopper coming, Marine! Get up!”

I opened my left eye. It hurt. Sun. It can’t be! It’s daylight! The sunlight forced the eye closed again.

“Get up. You got a taxi comin’ in!”

I opened my right eye, hoping that it wouldn’t corroborate my left. Sunlight! Oh, no! A blurry face stood over me with the barrel of a .155 hanging over his head.

“Are you okay?” the face asked.

“No.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I feel like I should be hugging a commode.”

“Get up! You got a chopper coming in to pick you up.”

“No, thanks, I’ll just wait here.”

“Speak up! I can’t hear you.”

“I can’t make it today. Sorry.”

“Hey, Jack! Come over here and give me a hand with this guy!”

I could feel someone picking me up. I tried to open my eyes, but it hurt. My mouth was cotton. My teeth hurt. My legs hurt. My ears hurt. “What’s that noise? Turn it off.”

“You’ll have to pull him in. This guy is really blasted.”

“Hey! Man! He puked all over my boot!”

“Here’s his rifle and pack.”

I was going up. So was my stomach.

“Man, you look green!” I opened my eyes. The door gunner was talking to me.

“I feel green. I think I’m going to throw up.”

“Here, hang out the hatch. I’ll hold your feet.”

I rolled toward the hatch, took my helmet off, and stuck my head out. The wind smashed against my ears. The ground swirled. I puked. And puked. And puked.

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