THE MEMOIRS OF A SQUID by Charles L. Rasmussen

Draft No. VIII WGAE REG.NO.R07960-00 For Carrie Chapter One Below the thunders of the upper deep Far, far beneath the abysmal sea His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep The Kraken sleepeth... Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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For as long as ships have plied the world’s oceans, sailors have returned from distant seas with terrifying tales of many armed monsters rising up from the abyss, attacking ships and devouring men. In the "Odyssey" the mythic beast was called "Scylla," in Tennyson's time, the "Kraken." Generations have been horrified by Jules Vern's nightmarish creature in "Ten Thousand Leagues under the Sea," the Giant Squid. To modern biology, the world's largest invertebrate is known as Archituethis--Greek for Ruling Squid. On November 2, 1878, an Atlantic Giant Squid became stranded in shallow water in the harbor at Thimble Tickle, Newfoundland. Three fishermen hooked onto the floundering animal with a grapple hook, which they tied with a line to a tree on shore, and then they waited for the tide to go out. At low tide the writhing creature lay marooned and doomed on the muddy flats. Its huge mantle measured 20 feet from the tip of its fin to its formidable parrot-like beak. One of the squid’s 35 foot-long tentacles was chopped off and weighed in at 734 pounds. When it finally died, the fishermen brought out axes and butchered the gargantuan animal for dog food. In the 1930s the crew of the Royal Norwegian Navy tanker, the "Brunswick" reported that the ship was stalked and attacked several times by giant squids, which wrapped themselves around the ship's hull. Unable to keep a firm grip on the slippery steel, the squids slid aft into the ship's propeller. In October 1966, two lighthouse keepers at Danger Point, South Africa observed a giant squid attacking, killing and devouring a baby Southern Right whale as the mother watched helplessly. Dead giant squids measuring seventy-five feet have been recovered from fishing nets hauled up from great depths. These lifeless blobs of collapsed flesh are mere hints of living monsters with sixteen-inch eyes and tentacles big as tree trunks armed with rows of barbed suckers the size of Frisbees. There are eyewitness reports of giant squids approaching 175 feet. There is even a World War II account of shipwrecked sailors being attacked by a squid that plucked one unlucky seaman out of the lifeboat and pulled him screaming beneath the waves. Credible or not, these are "sea stories" told by men home from strange lands and stranger seas—-unbelievable men and men believable but lacking proof. No scientist has ever documented the life of Archituethis--no photographs have ever been taken, no corroborated evidence exists--nothing. So the legend grows. This story, however, is about another kind of squid, which is what sailors are sometimes called. I was on my way up to the bridge to have a look at the aged and habitually malfunctioning radar when a very unusual noise caught my attention. The strange sound emanated from a bizarre apparition roughly a hundred yards off the starboard bow. At first glance it appeared to be an old steamship's paddlewheel incongruously churning away all by itself in the otherwise placid sea. Then, rising up out of the water, it looked like an enormous angry black fist, snapping its great thumb loudly and repeatedly. And then we saw that another many-fingered hand had wrapped itself tightly around this fist in a wriggling death grip. The two wrestling specters were in fact the legendary sperm whale in mortal combat with that denizen of the deep, the giant squid. The whale breached, twirling as it exploded up into the air. This caused several of the squid’s whip-like tentacles to flail about like the arms of a dancer possessed. With its powerful toothy jaw the sperm whale chomped hungrily at the squid’s tentacles as they crashed together back down into the brine. The squid, snaking its remaining arms around the whale’s massive head, rooted its beak into the mammal’s thick gray hide and tore at the hinge point of its chomping mandible. On deck, ship's work ceased as everyone rushed to the starboard side and gaped in awe at a spectacle very few humans had witnessed before. But the outcome of this titanic battle was by no means certain, for it was impossible to tell who was eating whom. Did the whale stalk the squid through the black abyss, clamp onto its prey and drag it helplessly up a mile or so into the bright light of day for a cruel feast, or was it perhaps the squid that had attacked the unsuspecting whale? The eye of the squid bore, in its grim implacability, a look of cool determination, while it was the whale that seemed to be the one creating all the ruckus. Which creature was playing with its catch and which one was fighting for its life we would never know, for it was the Captain's prerogative to stop the ship or not, and no one questioned it, nor did anyone consider for even one second suggesting to the old man that this was perhaps something worth looking at, or at least slowing down the old rust bucket for, you know, one precious minute, just for the hell of it. Think maybe we could break the mind-numbing monotony of another boring workday at sea just for a few lousy minutes? No sir. The unnecessary stopping of a United States Naval vessel, if only for a rare moment like this one, was completely out of the question; the need to stay the course, to stick to business, was paramount. That was the Navy way. The splashing and snapping sounds faded as the fight raged on. Then finally it passed out of our sight altogether as the ship steamed along its determined way, and before long we too were out of the sight of that huge unblinking eye. Ship's work continued. Deck seamen went back to chipping away at the perpetually rusting haze gray paint. Down below, Enginemen toiled uninterrupted in the insufferable heat. Amidships, in the galley, sweat-drenched mess cooks prepared another predictable meal for the crew. Up in the breeze on the starboard wing of the bridge, the captain lighted his sweet-smelling pipe and casually observed the passing wonder. I scrambled up the ladders to the bridge to fix the temperamental radar while the ship and its men proceeded undistracted over the great blue highway, oblivious to the outside world except for its effect on the movement of the ship. The ocean-going tug, “USS Quapaw” was our home, our work place and our prison. Chapter Two It was 1965, the year Vietnam really started to heat up. On the Fourth of July, a month after high school graduation, the five-year exile from my beloved mother came to an abrupt end when a little chunk of plaque lodged itself in the left coronary artery of her fragile heart and killed her at the desperate age of forty. I had lost my bearing with little grasp of what lay ahead, or to which direction I should turn in the coming months, consequently, my first unwary step out of childhood was smack into deep shit. I got drafted. There is a perilous and brief period in a young man's life when he is suitable and useful for military induction. At age eighteen he is nearly full grown, but still very much a boy, not yet cognizant in most cases of his own individuality and self- worth. Still bound by the shackles of authority, he is, if normally brought up, the malleable product of a culture that claims to value certain qualities in its young males: obedience, selflessness, and unflinching loyalty. His parents, his football coach, and his scout leader strive to instill such virtues in the boy so that by the time he reaches the age of eighteen he should be willing to "jump" when told to do so, and ask "how high?" on the way up. In boot camp those are the first words out of a drill instructor's mouth right after he’s barked that other famously obnoxious dictum. "I'm your mother. I'm your father. I'm your coach. I'm your preacher. I'm God and your ass is mine." By the age of around twenty-five the average young man will have developed a degree of self-respect and possibly a mind of his own and will likely reply, “My ass is mine, sir. You may kiss it if you like." Most men, by that age, will have slipped beyond the reach of questionable authority. In our little town, the largely working-class families reared children much as their parents had, in the traditional American way. When duty called, a young man was expected to answer, or have a good reason not to, or at the very least, a believable and acceptable excuse not to. While college deferments and sympathetic family doctors were available to some the day Uncle Sam came to town, the rest found themselves caught out in the open without any means of escape. Many ambivalent young men simply resigned themselves to the war and accepted their fates as plain dumb luck. Others, who felt the patriotic urge, assumed the responsibility of serving their country, stood up and volunteered. Still, many others, out of mortal fear or moral outrage, simply refused to go and thus began a movement. A ripe and ready crop of “baby boomers” was just coming of age when the war began, like Vietnam was merely a natural Darwinian response to a burgeoning population of young males, the next wave of lemmings, like our fathers had been to the World War I generation and the Gulf War boys were to our own. Conceived in the valiant spirit of victory, our generation was born into the crucible of a post war America saturated in the stuff of combat and, sensing it in the womb, we came out sniffing the air for gun smoke. We grew up captivated by our father's endless references to “The War”, to its heroics, its machinery, and its misery. "Bombs over Tokyo, here I come!" Instinctively we knew how to hold off the enemy with our Mattel "burp-guns," bravely going out in a blaze of glory. And boy did we know how to die; that was crucial. You didn't just fall down dead; no, you imploded into the fatal bullet like they always did in the movies, then clasping your hands over the mortal wound to retain the last glimmer of life, you died standing your ground and then slowly and dramatically fell into the grass, being careful not to put your hand down to break the fall--it being nobler to get a bruise than spoil the effect. Our earnest boyhood dream was to someday become real war heroes just like our dads had been. We expected it. Maybe we even wanted it. Then one day we lost interest in the childish games. We put away our cap guns, boxed-up the tin soldiers and model airplanes, said goodbye to catching frogs, flying moon-faced kites on windy days and riding clunky old bicycles down dusty country roads. Something big and wonderful was blowing in the wind and it spoke of the entire meaning and mystery of life and we followed it out of town like the pied piper. Tuning-in the "Tambourine Man” on our car radios we set out to look for the one thing that could fill our hungry hearts--girls. Girls were better than all that kid stuff combined. Better by far than the best day ever at the swimming hole--ten times more fun than Christmas. No ball game no matter how fantastic the win nor what the score, nothing heretofore conceivable exceeded the thrill of the chase, the exciting hit to first, then to second, on to third base, and a final ecstatic slide into home plate. Not so fast boys. There was an ominous knock at the front door. "Remember me?" He had been a familiar presence, skulking in the shadows of the vacant lot where we had once played our war games, and then he had disappeared. He returned now, years later, to claim that we'd made some kind of unspoken pact with him. It was pay up time. How could it be? We were just little boys goofing around in a make believe world, having some innocent fun with our toys. “But a deal,” he said “is a deal,” and now our parents could not protect us, for we were no longer children. The Selective Service hung over our heads like the sword of Damocles. Upon turning draft age, all young men had a crucial decision to make. Trouble was most of us had never made a decision more important than whether or not we would try out for the high-school football team (Coincidentally our high school football team was named the Toledo “Boomers,” after a large rat-like rodent called the mountain boomer) or whom we would ask to the senior prom. Considering myself somewhat outside of the social scene and woefully too thin and clumsy to be of any use on the football field, I chose not to participate in either of those two teenage exercises in awkwardness, and judging from an old high school annual photograph of the turnout at my class prom, I was not alone on the outside. Convinced that I was really not the kind of guy who fit the profile of the typical red-blooded American warrior, I fully expected the higher powers to recognize that fact when my name came up. "Don't bother”, I assumed they would say, “We’re not going to get much out of that one." And that was just fine with me. On turning eighteen every Oregon boy was required to report to the Armed Forces Entrance Examining Station (AFEES) in Portland for a battery of tests to determine his fitness for military service. Some general intelligence tests eliminated the mentally incompetent. I believe we were also tested for certain disqualifying socio-pathologies, psychoses, neuroses and other mal-adjustments, but perhaps not, judging from the variety of mental misfits often encountered in the military. Like cattle gone to auction, we were herded from one inspection to another and our bodies were thoroughly examined from every aspect, front to back and top to bottom. They checked our hearts, lungs, livers, kidneys, eyes, ears, noses, throats, teeth, skulls, hair, skin, spines, arms, hands, fingernails, legs, knees, feet, toenails, penises, testicles and assholes. For an inspection of our assholes a group of a hundred or so were led into an auditorium and ordered to form a big circle. “Turn your backs to the center of the room and strip down.” Earlier they had threatened immediate induction into the army infantry for any troublemakers. That wasn’t true of course, but what did we know? We couldn’t be certain of anything. This was all new and intimidating stuff and no one felt like challenging the authority of the United States military so we obediently did what we were told and removed our clothes and piled them at our feet. “Now bend over, spread your cheeks, and keep your mouths shut." While we held that position a rather abrupt and somewhat surly doctor strode along with a clipboard and a special flashlight which he used for illuminating each man’s hole. He stopped now and then to make notations on particular anuses; a few of them required closer scrutiny and some discussion with colleagues. Meanwhile the lot of us, trying not to make eye contact with those across the room, gazed blankly at the view between our legs of the very peculiar spectacle of a long upside-down row of a wide variety of butt holes and eyebrows. At each step of the physical I found myself, not only expecting, but actually hoping to be found blessed with a defect of one sort or another; the army, in its quest for good soldiers, wanted to draft only perfect assholes and I really didn’t want to be one of them. We were still civilians at this point, with Constitutional Rights and all that, just like everyone else. So we thought. The examiners had not yet devised a way to make the hearing test another opportunity for humiliation so it was administered privately in a small room with one’s clothes on. The technician placed a set of headphones on me and then, with some knurled knobs, he adjusted the dials on the test equipment. “When you hear a sound in your left ear, push this button,” he said. “When the sound is in you right ear, push that one.” Simple enough I agreed and he left the room to smoke a cigarette in the hallway with some colleagues. At first the tones were faint and indistinguishable from the ringing left in my ears after the last time my brother and I went deer hunting together. That got me all screwed up right off the bat. Soon there were loud whistles, foghorns, and sirens blaring left and right so loudly that I could hear them in both ears simultaneously, and they were coming faster than I could keep up with them and getting me so confused that, in utter frustration, I ripped the headphones off and slammed them down on the table. At that very moment the examiner re-entered the room. “What the hell are you doing? Idiots! You’re all idiots. I told you to leave those goddamned headphones on until I got back. What’re you fucking DEAF?” “No,” I tried to explain, while at the same time realizing that I had unwittingly let a possible medical deferment slip right through my fingers. The examiner furiously scribbled in his portion of my check-off list and then with the butt of his cigarette pointed me toward the door and motioned the next idiot in. Worrying as much as I was about the draft could have given anyone a case of ulcers—indeed the very ulcers that just might have provided me with a much-coveted medical deferment. So now I had one more thing to worry about: how to get the bleeding ulcers I desperately needed. Hoping and praying to somehow fail to meet the physical requirements, I even thought that my abnormal skinniness might at last be of some benefit and deem me unfit for military service. Assuming that any number of things could be wrong with me, and still considering myself to be somewhat lucky, as my stepmother had often proclaimed, I found it nearly impossible to picture myself wearing any kind of military uniform, let alone fighting in the jungles of a distant country somewhere near Siam, a mysterious country that had not even been mentioned in my high school geography class, at least that I could remember from one of the possible rare moments that I was awake at my desk. So to hedge my bet if luck suddenly ran out on me, I had applied to and had been accepted at an easy-to-get-into nearby junior college. The war would be won without my help as everyone was sure it would be, just like the last war, or rather the one before the last one, which was Korea, which was conveniently forgotten by the year 1965. But I wasn’t quite ready to register for classes—figured I still had some time to enjoy my first year out of high school. Wasn’t that worried—yet. College was the smartest choice of a limited number of options available to determined draft dodgers. A felony drug conviction for the possession of a minute amount of marijuana would disqualify any otherwise-upstanding young man. Conveniently bad knees discovered by a concerned family doctor after four years of doctor approved high school football kept a lot of healthy boys out of harm’s way. Walking into your local draft board office with another guy's penis in your hand would automatically win two young men instant 4F status. Before “Don’t ask don’t tell” it was “No homos need apply.” This might be a hard thing to live down in a small town, but one could have claimed to be a bed-wetter.4F for sure on that one. Better to bite the bullet though and risk getting killed in a pointless war and kill a few “Gooks” while you’re at it than to try to live that one down. “Now why was it you didn’t have to go to war Daddy?” The young Bill Clinton followed his conscience and opposed the war. He was smart. Another young man, who would one day earn a place in the history books for shoving Bill Clinton’s dick in America’s face, was spared from proving himself on the battlefield by the “heartbreak of psoriasis.” An acquaintance of mine used a little household detergent to exacerbate his psoriasis, which was common practice in those days. Hey, who wouldn’t do it? I’ll bet the prosecutor did it. Could have. I began to envy those with minor afflictions. Vice president Dick Cheney got four questionable college deferments and one for a dependent child so as to better serve his country by spying on campus anti-war activists for the U.S. government. They were the "real" draft dodgers in his opinion. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the war in Vietnam, as much as he is for recent and future wars, but he had important plans for his life, stating recently that, ”I had other priorities in the Sixties than military service.” Risking his own neck in Vietnam was definitely not one of his “priorities.” What with all the causes he finds worth dying for I am amazed that the man is still alive. Oh right, they were causes worth OTHERS dying for. Future president George W. Bush appears to have been totally unaffected by the war in Vietnam--claims he never even discussed it in college. He had of course heard about it though, because there is evidence that he wasn’t so eager to go there when the opportunity arose. At the time, the Texas Air National Guard flight training school had a waiting list of a year and a half, yet despite after having surpassed all expectations by “somehow” achieving the lowest possible qualifying score on the pilot aptitude test, George Junior was shoved to the front of a long waiting-line and admitted the day he applied--just twelve days before the expiration of his college deferment. As one of a privileged class of National Guard “Champagne” fighter pilots he was exempted from and he did not volunteer for overseas service. When the Guard began testing its “weekend warrior” pilots for cocaine use George Junior decided it was high time he quit flying altogether, and from many news reports, his superiors at the time have no recollection of him attending any Guard meetings at all after that; why he wasn’t charged with going AWOL remains a mystery. From here on it was party-time for the devil-may-care young man who preferred barstool pacifism to fighting. “Dubya” didn’t stand up for peace exactly and probably would have fallen flat on his fortunate face if he had tried, but like many young men at the time he felt that the war was an evil to be avoided. And who can hold that against the man? The high life continued for many years until the day George Herbert Walker Bush introduced his fun-loving son to the evangelical minister Billy Graham. And so it was on the road to Washington that George Jr.’s miraculous conversion took place. The peace-loving Ivy Leaguer of mediocre intellect finds Jesus Christ and soon thereafter becomes the “war-mongering ignoramus” and then suddenly discovers a powerful urge to kick some foreign butt. The Bush administration is rife with bellicose, saber rattling, draft dodgers driving the nation and it’s young to do that which they themselves had once lacked the stomach. And then there were boys like my little brother whose application for Conscientious Objector status was based solely on his objection to killing people. The draft review board required more than that; a religious affiliation of some kind was necessary to make his claim "official." But he couldn't provide one, because, like me, he was a “heathen” (as our father had often said). In fact he even refused the convenient one with which they'd offered to furnish him to "validate his claim." This after first informing him that his was the longest and most sincere hearing to date. The military is an organization that exists for the purpose of institutionalized killing, so it was no big surprise to him when they rejected his claim. He simply decided to go underground--with his conscience intact. As it turned out, my hearing like everything else was deemed to be in perfect working order. Maybe I was as skinny as a pool cue but I was nevertheless found to be in excellent physical condition. ”The Army’ll put some meat on your bones kid.” Meat. And that is exactly what it felt like to be issued a draft card stamped 1-A in the year 1965-meat. I would make a fine soldier. Draft cards were to be carried at all times under penalty of imprisonment, stiff fines, or immediate induction. Police often pulled us over simply to see if we were carrying the despised card. If you were draft age and caught without your card you were in trouble. Though it was still too early in the war to be thinking about Canada, especially for us backward thinking small-town boys, it was an idea that would appeal to me a few years later. For now a college deferment was my only way out. Having no comprehension of what was happening in Vietnam, I was politically ambivalent about the war; basically I felt, “Why get involved?” It’s not that I thought there was nothing worth fighting for--far from it. I’ve always had the utmost respect for my father's generation and for anyone else who has ever fought the good fight. To be willing to die for what you believe in your heart to be just is noble in my book. They are always the ones with the most to lose who join that fight; there is real honor in that. It is the dubious wars that the boys are forced to fight without any real choice in the matter. There is very little honor in killing or in dying in an ignoble war and that is how Vietnam was shaping up in the year 1965. “Forward the Light Brigade!” Was there a man dismay’d? Not Tho’ the soldier knew Someone had blunder’d: Their’s not to make reply, Their’s not to reason why, Their’s but to do and die: Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred Tennyson A growing number of us Lincoln County boys began paying frequent visits to a woman named Helen Wade who ran the local draft-board office over in nearby Newport. Hell, Helen WAS the local draft board office. She filed our names by birth date in a locked cabinet behind her desk, and regularly got a fresh list from Uncle Sam to pull and process. Since she held the keys to our fates it seemed only prudent to get friendly with her, which was tricky business, probably even counterproductive, given her growing weariness of the steady stream of anxious young men poking their heads through the office door and sucking-up to her like she could be gotten with a few pleasantries and a friendly smile. Besides, the nature of her work required a certain detachment. To regard boys being sent off to an unjust war as faceless numbers was a lot easier on the conscience than thinking of them as actual human beings. Still, despite her seemingly impartial earnestness, we thought perhaps she could arrange something--at the very least give us a heads-up, a wink or a nod for Christ’s sake. She was our last chance, short of burning the place down, which was a plan, often but not seriously deliberated, after some under-age drinking, as one way to save our draft-age butts. Our contempt for the selective service and growing distaste for a war that had already taken a number of our friends had not yet turned us boys into criminals. After one such visit to Helen’s office, I left, comforted by the delusion that I was in no immediate danger of getting my notice, and foolishly I succumbed to a sudden streak of youthful recklessness. I decided to risk waiting until the following term to go to college. I didn't really want to go to that stupid podunk junior college anyway. I too had a life to live, with, ”other priorities than military service,” not the least of which was a budding romance with a certain nubile young lady, well, girl. And besides I didn’t really appreciate being dictated to by the Federal Government. Those inept bureaucrats and corrupt politicians didn’t own me, so screw’em. The official invitation appeared, ineluctably, soon thereafter, in the rather large mailbox at the end of our long gravel driveway. Belying its ominous content, the “draft notice” had an upbeat tone to it. "Greetings from the President of the United States," it cheerfully proclaimed, as if I had been selected to participate, not in the latest holocaust, but on the panel of judges at the "Miss America" beauty pageant. I almost threw up when I read it. Wondering if there hadn’t been some kind of bumbling clerical error made over at Helen Wade’s office, I jumped into my little black MGA roadster and sped over to Newport to find out what the goddamned fucking hell had happened. What Helen (and certainly I too) had not foreseen, soon became news that would rip America apart; President Lyndon Baines Johnson had opened the floodgates on Vietnam. The next day, as I passed through the dining room of our house, my stepmother and the mother of "the girl next door" played with a Ouija board at the dining table. It was as strange then as it would be today, but not that unusual for those two post-war moms. Hoovermatics and Maytags had liberated Donna and Betty from much of the endless drudgery their own mothers had long endured. They were just passing the time until the kids and the husbands came home from the schools and the mills. Sometimes they played scrabble. Other times they busied themselves with a jigsaw puzzle or cribbage. Their conversation generally turned to gossip, a lot of it concerning their difficult stepchildren, or the evil X's. They always met after a telephone call for percolated coffee at the house of the recent news; this time it was our house. "Is Charlie going to Vietnam?" Donna and Betty casually steered the planchette toward my destiny. "YES," the Ouija board predicted. “Oh my!” "Is Charlie coming back from Vietnam?" The Planchette zoomed across the board to an emphatic "NO." Donna and Betty stared bleakly at me as I shook my head in disbelief and slouched off to my bedroom mumbling under my breath. “Oh for Christ’s sake, just go fold clothes or something, would you?” And that, dear reader, is precisely what I myself would be learning to do real soon—and far better than I ever would have imagined. After receiving his notice the draftee had two weeks in order to find an alternative service to the dreaded two-year Army hitch, which was an almost certain trip to Vietnam as a rifle toting infantryman. Business was brisk with the various recruiters who were easily filling quotas with frantic hordes of young men looking everywhere for a way out. Positions in the more desirable services like the Coast Guard and reserve programs were disappearing faster than free "Grateful Dead" tickets. I was now obliged to do business with the military service, in other words-to make a pact with the devil, and ultimately decided, in resignation, that it was time to pay a visit to the United States Navy recruiter. So one morning I boldly walked into the navy recruiting office over in Newport, confident that I was about to make the man’s day and proceeded to offer him the exclusive services of one of the finest specimens of grade 1-A inspected American male on the market. I would, I told him, be that podunk College’s loss and his gain. What the heck, a couple years of travel, some life experience. Couldn’t be that bad now could it? Maybe I would get a sailboat someday-always wanted one; a little experience at sea just might come in handy. I was almost ready to sign-up, but first I had to see what my options were and all of the benefits I was entitled to. I was going to get everything I had coming. It was time to deal the cards. I sat right down in the chair in front of his desk, leaned forward and said, “I want to see the world.” Like a street hustler at the top of his trade the recruiter went right to work and played me like a mark in a game of Three Card Monte. "We got nothin' open right now son. Why don’t you come back tomorrow?" I returned first thing the next morning having lost much of the previous day’s confidence to a sleepless night. "All we got's four years active," he said. I said, “To hell with that.” "What about the two year reserve program?" I asked, trying to sound somewhat informed and merely curious, but he must have detected a slight urgency in the rising tone of my voice. Damned right he did. Guys like me were coming into his office all the time. He knew the score. I didn’t want to plead, but hell, couldn’t he just make some phone calls or something? I started to sweat. "Those are all finished pal." "Two year active, four year reserve?" Now I was down on my knees begging for something I really didn’t want anyway. "You missed the boat on that one too." This went on for several dreadful days. At one point I half-seriously considered joining the Marines; what the hell, they'd at least make a real man out of me. Guaranteed… The Few the Proud. When I told my Dad I was thinking about joining the United States Marines Corps he got a troubling look on his face. It was a combination of dismay and disgust, like he was staring at the word "MORON" smeared across my forehead in blood-red lipstick. He had been a Navy man-in THE war. "You're too smart for that Charlie." Wow! Smart? Did he actually say that? After eighteen years of telling me that everything I touched turned to shit right in my hands, my Dad gives me a gentle pat on the back and it wasn't to shove me off the brink either--well not into certain death anyway. Frankly I was feeling pretty damned stupid and needed some sensible fatherly advice and for once in my life I took it. With the now familiar look of panic in my eyes I paid yet another distressing visit to the Navy recruiter. When I walked in, he was sitting comfortably behind his desk drinking his morning cup of coffee. A chair was positioned in front of his desk like an electric-chair waiting for a condemned man. “Have a seat,” said the recruiter in his usual businesslike manner. Nervously, I sat down in the chair as the relaxed uniformed man leaned back behind his desk and casually juggled my life in his two clever hands. At this point I was practically screaming at him. "Please! Don't you have anything?" The three-year active duty program was beginning to look inevitable, desirable even; what the hell, one extra year of tolerable service to avoid ending up slogging through the malarial, booby-trapped rice paddies of Southeast Asia trying to dodge Viet Cong bullets? A year at sea in exchange for perhaps the rest of my life seemed acceptable. Not a bad trade I reasoned. The terrors of the Mekong delta were almost palpable as I suddenly found myself pleading for that at which on the previous day I had scoffed. “What the hell,” I said, like I had just cut the deal of my life, “I’ll take it. Give me the three year active-duty program.” "Sorry son, that was yesterday. There’s nothing I can do for you today. Should have jumped on it sooner; maybe I could have done something for you. Not now. Looks like you'll be going to war." He may as well have said, "Sorry son if you'll just step into that room over there, a live hand grenade will be shoved up your ass. Good luck and good day." "So this is how my carefree life ends,” I thought to myself, “so quickly and so pointlessly." It probably looked to the recruiter like I was getting ready to really freak out--which was precisely the case. I could almost hear the bullet coming that was going to blow my brains out. My head was already exploding. Mister Navy Recruiter Sir was now ready for the sting. "Heck I'm just teasin' ya, son," he says, as he flips a sheet of paper that had been lying there in front of him the whole time, discreetly face down, and slides it across his desk. "Just sign there." Now, never was a document more swiftly signed than the one transferring title of ownership of one Charles L. Rasmussen from Charles L. Rasmussen to the United States Government, Department of the Navy. I happily signed up for a four-year active-duty hitch in the regular Navy, believing at that moment that it was better than getting my sorry ass blown off. Well, it was done. They got me. However, by spring of 1966 the U.S. Navy was so crammed full of reluctant enlistees like myself that it had begun stacking them up for a four-month waiting period just to get into boot camp; it was called the “Cache Program,” and that suited me just fine. I was in no hurry whatsoever for an abrupt end to my freedom. At the outset, four months seemed like an eternity; hell anything could happen in that amount of time. The way I figured it, this unnecessary war would soon be over anyway and I'd get another letter before long saying "never mind" and then I could simply resume my life as it had been before. The other way I figured it was that the United States of America would nuke Hanoi, as some politicians had already urged, and that would set off the Third World War. The next day Soviet thermo-nuclear torpedoes would vaporize the entire U.S. fleet and that would be that. With no more ships, and probably civilization to boot, there would hardly be a need for sailors. The only thing I was dead certain about was that I was in love for the first time in my life. Chapter Three "Help, I need somebody. Not just anybody." Christine was a girl I'd had my eye on for quite some time, at close range. She had been dating my best friend for over a year. Larry and I had spent a lot of time together those first delirious months out of high school, double dating and just goofing around. We were buddies. To earn college money, we both took summer jobs at the local paper-mill and started the same shift with keg-party hangovers the day after high school graduation. We worked hard at our entry-level jobs, and we played even harder, often skipping sleep after a graveyard shift only to face another grueling eight-hour shift following sixteen hours on the go. Booze, fast cars and girls supplied the main ingredients to our fun. Neither of us was too keen on starting school in the fall and frankly the only reason we felt obliged to was to beat the draft. So we stayed on at the paper mill that fall and partied on into winter, all the while keeping one precarious step ahead of Uncle Sam. Christine was with Larry more often than not and after while I grew accustomed to having her around. As far as I was concerned she was the prettiest girl in town and the first one I could never see enough of. Beguiling, quick and adventurous, her easy spirit was as welcome to me as a sunny spring day on the otherwise cloudy Oregon coast. I had had a couple of girlfriends already, nothing serious, although I almost had to marry one of them at the muzzle-end of her dad’s .306 hunting rifle, which might not have been all that bad--she was sure pretty enough, if not just a tad too wild. But Christine was the one for me. She was the one--THE ONE. As it happened in our small constellation, the gravitational center between the three of us shifted eventually toward her and me. (In an old love letter from me to her there is mention of a foretelling birthday kiss suspiciously eyed by our respective dates). After Larry went away to college (that same stupid Podunk junior college--one sensible step ahead of me) it was by awkward avoidance that I didn't see Christine for a while. Then I began to feel an inescapable longing for a closeness that I had grown accustomed to--along with an over-ridden pang of guilt. There had never been any conscious intentions between Christine and me and for that to happen would have been a statement of some magnitude, and that, in the overwhelming crush of desire, was absolutely inevitable. The day finally came when we saw each other again and our feelings became as obvious to us as they had been to Larry. It was no big surprise then to him when he came home a few months later and found that everything had changed, but not our friendship we promised each other. But naturally it had. So I quit my menial job at the paper mill and lived off the money I'd saved for college, whiling away my final weeks of freedom like a rich man on a splurge, living for today, hoping tomorrow would never come. Christine and I clung hard to each other and to our faith in enduring love, as if love was something that could be squirreled away like acorns for the long months and years ahead; it had to last. I visualized the two of us standing on the face of an enormous clock with days instead of numbers marking the precious time being swept away by a relentless hand turning steadily and swiftly toward my day of departure. Each and every afternoon I picked up Christine after school and we drove off to spend the remainder of the day together, which invariably included some quality smooch time at one of our favorite parking spots—two American kids growing up fast as we could. Regardless of my predicament, I was happy to be alive and thrilled to be with Christine, even at the expense of my freedom. I never regretted it; she was all I cared about. From that point on, it was us against the world. Christine’s dad, Harry, owned a Rexall drug store on Main Street. He was also the mayor of "Sweet little Toledo." A small sign at the city limits decreed, "Entering Toledo, Oregon, Population 3,250 Drive Carefully." It still announced the same number decades later until wild blackberry vines finally pulled the faded board down into the bushes. No one cared anymore. A half-dozen miles or so from the Pacific Ocean, Toledo nestles snugly into the forested hillsides of an isolated valley in the Oregon Coast Range. It seems larger than it is, owing to the number of angles from which it can be viewed. Laid flat on open ground one might quite easily drive through the whole of it in under a minute. The town proper is a maze of roller-coaster streets, namesakes of the trees that gave birth and sustenance to the busy little community: Alder Way, Beech Street, Cedar, Douglas. It's the kind of place you must become familiar with before you can find your way around, or your way out. It rains much of the time there, except for a few dreamy weeks of late summer and early fall. According to records, the heaviest annual rainfall in North America almost continually soaks the even smaller village of neighboring Valsetz, which earns the distinction over Toledo only because they bother to measure it. In the summer of 1970 Toledo was the location site for the movie made from "Sometimes a Great Notion," Ken Keasey's grim novel about a ruggedly individualistic Oregon logging family; it was a logging town. From the latter part of the nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth, the industrious Toledo grew in inverse proportion to the dwindling ancient forests. For decades a seemingly endless supply of timber flowed down the many treacherous logging roads that had been cut fatally deep into the magnificent forests. Like great wooden corpuscles they flowed into the heart of town, hauled there by the millions on the backs of roaring, rumbling, Peterbuilt, REO, and Mack log-trucks. On the river, a sturdy breed of men who wore aluminum hardhats to church, rolled their cigarettes with one hand and with the other they deftly steered the small but stout workhorse “bumper” tugboats through the cold bone-numbing drizzle, towing long ponderous log rafts down the brackish slow-moving Yaquina as it looped through Toledo on its meandering journey to the Pacific. The rhythm of the woods and the sawmills pulsed through town with the persistence of the sun and the moon and the tides. Steam whistles echoing back and forth across the narrow valley marked the shift changes as the mills gobbled up the trees at a staggering rate, ‘round the clock, for a hundred years. It was dangerous work turning forests into lumber, there being as many ways to maim or kill a lumberjack as there were trees in the woods or machines in the sawmills. "Widow-makers" lurked somewhere high up in the branches every tree. In the clamorous sawmills there were a thousand ways to lose a hand, or an eye, or a life. But there was also the reassuring comfort of nature’s life-sustaining bounty in that cozy valley. Humid coastal air perfumed with the pitchy fragrance of fresh-cut Douglas fir, cedar and spruce blended sweetly with the clouds of wood smoke welling up from the sawmill’s wigwam scrap burners and the rank aroma of the river’s intertidal mud-flats. At night the wigwam burners glowed like ghostly orange teepees through a thick damp blanket of fog. That same dense fog intensified the many distinct sounds of the mills: the steady whine of the saws, a sharp hiss of steam, the metallic clank of machinery and clatter of chains, a thudding tumble of logs, and carried it all up through the empty winding streets of Toledo. Like gentle music it lulled the townsfolk to sleep. By the time the sixties rolled around, the bounty of the primeval forests, which had once seemed limitless, was being cut a second time and replanted yet once again, transforming the great Coast Range into vast tracts of uniformity--tree farms. Eventually only a few scattered stands of the ancient woods remained under tenuous protection from the ravenous chainsaws. Gone were the hay-days of the legendary virgin forests, of logging trucks parading down Toledo’s Main Street bearing the lifeless remains of a fallen giant. Nature had been tamed, and so too the people. All that remained for the loggers were spindly trees, useful only to the new paper mill, which processed them into pulp for paper bags and cardboard boxes and to the last plywood mill that peeled the slender logs down to the core and pressed the knot-holed skins into uniform sheets. The heady aromas of better times blew away in the wind, and were replaced by the acrid stench of sulfur and the sour odor of cooked cabbage, a stink that earned the revitalized town its new nickname, "Toilet Hole." Rows of cookie-cutter houses hurriedly built for employees of the new paper-mill soon sprang-up in the shadow of its towering smokestack. Now the residents of modern neighborhoods wishfully named Cedar View and Fir Crest looked out upon the endless clear-cut tracts and bragged of the tallest smokestack in the Northwest, referring to its putrid toxic vapors as the "smell of bread and butter." When my mom kicked my dad out, he left for good the small town of Washougal, Washington where he and my mother had grown up, and moved to Toledo where he took a job as a journeyman electrician at the new Georgia Pacific pulp and paper mill. It was an impulsive move that happily settled him there for the rest of his life. Early one cold rainy morning, shortly after the end of a graveyard shift, my father sat bleary-eyed at the breakfast counter of the Sunnyside café and furtively glanced over the rim of his coffee cup toward the shapely behind of the 26-year-old waitress. He had seen her before with a guitar at one of the taverns, twanging away at a Johnny Cash tune for the hard working, hard drinking hard-hats. When she swung around and slid a tall stack of buttermilk pancakes with bacon and eggs over easy across the counter, my hungry dad looked up and gazed fatefully into the pale green eyes of a fiery natural redheaded divorcee named Donna Lee (the same name that would one day adorn the transom of his fishing boat). She was looking for a good working man for herself and her two little girls. Bingo! A year later my little brother Ivan and I ended up there in exile as well; our mom had been losing control of us and wearily gave up the battle. Even though I'd always gotten along with my dad about as well as Mom did, at the pivotal age twelve I was ready to cut loose her apron strings and follow the man whom she'd always regarded as the link between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon. She viewed herself as others did--supremely modern--one of the first women in America wanting to find herself. My mother was born thirty years too soon. She looked good in a fifties housedress as she hung billowing sheets and pillowcases on the backyard clothesline to flutter dry in the afternoon breeze. Looking good came natural to her--being a housewife didn’t. And she wasn’t the kind of mom to bring cupcakes to school on her kid’s birthday either, but one day she did stop by my fourth-grade classroom to drop off something that I’d forgotten at home. I beamed. The boy sitting next to me said at recess that she looked like Loretta Young. “My Mom’s prettier,” I said. She was an artist who could draw like Raphael and everyone who knew her understood that she dreamed of a different life—a better one. She knew her way around men too, and they longed to possess her, flocking to her side, one by one, even little boys, but none more than my brother and me. On the day my brother and I left for Toledo I stood on a stool that made me a little bit taller than my mother and we held each other for a long time. She put her head on my shoulder and said to me, “Now Charlie, you know what it feels like to be a man.” Then off we went for the summer, to be with our dad and to get acquainted with his new family. After supper one evening our dad wanted to talk to Ivan and me; by this time it was nearing the end of August and getting close to the next school year. I was entering the eighth grade while my brother trailed a year behind me. It had been a fun summer, but now we were itching to get back to Washougal, to be with our mom, our sister, our grandparents, and our friends. Big Ivan stood in front of my brother and me as we sat nervously next to each other on the plank steps of the front porch of the small bungalow situated close to the road halfway up the hill on Beech Street. He was a tall man and at that moment he looked like a giant to his worried sons. Giving orders was his usual manner with us, except when we were doing something fun like trying to catch fish or shooting guns at tin cans or some unfortunate animal--then we were his little buddies. The rest of the time we were his personal fetchers and pains-in-the-ass, always at his "God-damned-son-of-a-bitchin’" side, ready to lend an inadequate hand or run for a tool. "Does that look like a box-end wrench to you Charlie? Now go get me a god damned box-end wrench." He talked AT us, dismissing most queries with "What do you want to know for?" or, “How the hell would I know?" Now he wanted to TALK to us. My brother and I sensed the gravity of the moment in the unfamiliar way our dad looked at us. "I know all about what you boys have been up to in Washougal," he said. He was referring to the shoplifting of candy-bars, marbles, BBs and such, the vandalizing of an abandoned house, the smoking of cigarettes snitched from Mom, fistfights in vacant lots and other after-school shenanigans. Tears began to stream down my little brother's cheeks, not because he was afraid of punishment, and also not because he was as guilty as I was, but because that unfamiliar look in his father's eyes was one of genuine concern and understanding and it felt strange, scary even, like the end of the world, and in a way for us, it was. And a beginning. I surreptitiously eased my bony elbow into my little brother's ribs with a "Don't blow it now" nudge, as I tried my damnedest to appear perplexed and innocent. "You boys don't HAVE to do that kind of stuff anymore." Have too? I wondered what the hell he meant by that, at the same time knowing full well what it meant to my little brother and me. An absolute miracle had occurred that evening. Our Dad, for the moment at least, had transformed himself into the veritable embodiment of that wise and caring TV father, Ward Cleaver. And we didn't like it either. But we had no choice. Thus began a new life with a new stepmother, two new stepsisters, a new school, a new blue tick hound, and construction began on a house by a lake in the boonies. We called it “The Place” and our dad built most of it all by himself. Donna lee helped as much as she could and so did “us boys” whenever they could get us to come out of the woods. I have two old black and white photographs. Our Mother took both pictures about a year apart. In the first one, two surly pre-teen boys slump on their grandmother’s couch--the older one sporting a greasy “Kookie, Kookie lend me your comb," Brylecreamed ducktail. Next to me my little brother had so much Lucky Tiger butch wax smeared in his hair that it could stand up to a plunge into the Washougal River. The second photograph taken in a motel overlooking the beach after living with our Dad and Donna Lee for a while shows us leaning into the camera with neatly trimmed hair and big smiles. We had narrowly missed becoming juvenile delinquents. We were also extremely happy to see our mother again. Mom spent the next five years ensconced high upon a pedestal (well she died up there actually). Donna Lee immediately began chipping away at the pedestal’s foundation. Dad fired rounds at it with his .300 Savage hunting rifle, blasting away big chunks of marble. My brother and I busied ourselves with repairs. Our older sister Anita, who remained with Mom, ducked behind the pedestal and dodged the ricocheting bullets. Now it was Donna Lee who ran the show and she was not exactly June Cleaver, but then I was not exactly the easy-going Wally either. My little brother however would have made a fine Beaver. Christine's family had been Toledo pioneers. By comparison to the wreckage of my family, hers seemed somewhat conventional; her mother Jane could have stood-in for any of the TV mothers. She was a peach, a real peach, and the first woman I could just sit down and talk with. The serene Jane was the natural counterpoint to the entertaining, eccentric, and often coarse Harry who frequently made Sloppy Joes or spaghetti for breakfast in his underwear for any and all who happened by. Sometimes he ran out to the middle of the backyard and cut loose a fart that could be heard by the all neighbors. Said he was “just being considerate.” “Oh Harry,” Jane moaned in mock disgust, as the kids snickered around the breakfast table, which was the whole purpose of the fart. I eased into the Hawkins family like a stray tomcat to the neighborhood cat lady. Christine’s two sisters called me “Chuckerella” given the stepmother and two stepsisters. In my final days of civilian life I was invited to stay in the upstairs bedroom recently vacated by the only son. He had dropped out of high school and joined the Navy himself, but unlike me, not under duress-just thought it would be more interesting than Toledo High School. That turned out to be true all right. His abandoned sanctum sanctorum was filled with a small library of books and had been open by invitation only to his three sisters and only for purposes of being read to on occasion by the bookish boy. Mindful of this and never having had a room of my own, I was careful not to disturb the deserted privacy. I felt that he had been very fortunate growing up the way he had and now I too felt like a fortunate son. Not to give the impression that my girlfriend and I were passing the waning days of spring in Platonic innocence; we were in fact respectfully discreet in her family's home. She was my sister when we kissed goodnight at her bedroom door, two doors down the hall from mine, and the next day my girlfriend again. We were in love and we were inseparable, which worried our parents some, as well it should have, because the only thing that we feared was the day it would all end. As the days grew warmer, summer approached with a cold foreboding unfamiliar to young hearts that had grown up yearning for the lazy days of summer. Not so this year. Christine and I braced ourselves against the ill winds of the coming season. Yet despite our desires, the days passed at an accelerating pace. An ever-shortening pendulum swung faster and faster and faster, unwinding our imaginary clock at an increasingly frantic rate until finally, terminally it ticked no more. Behind a church one night in Portland, Oregon we said our first tearful good-bye, and the next morning I embarked on my four-year odyssey. All we had after that were the love letters--an endless stream of them. We wrote each other virtually every day. Chapter Four The naval officer presiding over the swearing in ceremony was all "welcome aboard gentlemen" and friendly, like we were being invited into some kind of exclusive men’s club. He closed the door and then politely asked us to please face the flag hanging in the corner of the small room, place our hands over our hearts and repeat after him the oath to God, country and the United States Navy. Immediately following the "So help me God" part, the genial upbeat officer made a complete about-face. "Men,” he sneered, “up to the moment you raised your hands and took the oath, you were under no legal obligation, you could have walked out of here and gone home, but it’s too late for that, because now your sorry asses belong to the United States Navy. Welcome to communism boys"--just to rub it in. The door to freedom abruptly slammed shut for four long years. He then handed each of us a letter-size Manila envelope, our very first set of orders, with the admonishment, “Do not open them.” Our future was sealed. Next, a bright little fellow who looked remarkably like the boy on the Cracker Jacks box popped in. "Follow me,” He chirped. He then took us directly to a waiting van and straight to the Portland International airport. Gee, already I was beginning to see the world--and watching it disappear at the same time. I had never flown in an airliner before. Once I flew in a small plane with my mother and her boyfriend. He almost crashed into a cow pasture showing off for my mom. When it happened my brother and I were staring in amazement over Mom’s shoulder out the front window of the little single engine Stinson. As we broke through the puffy-white clouds, I wondered curiously why some cows were standing sideways on a vertical hillside directly in front of the airplane, seemingly defying gravity. At that instant the immense G-forces slammed me back into the seat as the plane screamed over the horns of a herd of stampeding cows. Still Mom was impressed--the guy could afford an airplane. Cracker Jack boy put us on a jet airliner and bid us, "good-bye and good luck." On the flight to San Diego the stewardesses treated us the same as the rest of the passengers: same food, same courtesy, and same respect--us bright eyed small-town boys going off on a big adventure. I didn't realize it then, but that was the last time I would feel like a normal human being for four very long years. What I also didn't realize was that we weren't so much passengers as we were cargo: a half-dozen units of US government property being shipped from Portland, Oregon to San Diego, California, raw material, no different, fundamentally, than several ingots of pig iron going to a foundry to be cast into a cannon. Dear Christine, 7/14/66 I Am aboard a Boeing 720B, cruising about 600 mph. at 39,000 ft. and have just passed over Toledo (7:30) Later: Starting to descend toward San Francisco where I will board another jet for San Diego. Remember 10:00 Love you always, Chuck The above was hand-written on a postcard. On the back was inscribed "Compliments of 'Battleship Oregon, Navy Mothers Club,' Portland, Oregon." It was among several hundred letters in a cardboard box that Christine had stored in an attic for more than three decades. I had pretty much completed these reminiscences on Navy life when I decided to read those letters, thinking perhaps they might be useful in fleshing out some of the details of those years. They turned out to be not as much use in that regard as one might expect. I had little to report to her on the daily activities in training, the years at sea, and in my travels around the world. And there was only one letter left from the last year. The others had disappeared somewhere along the road to the twenty-first century. Only two letters from Christine remained, even though I sent them all back to her for safekeeping. Those letters were, at the time, a means of escape from a life that I found barely tolerable, not because that life was in itself so unbearable; hell it was, in many ways, no worse really than some of the craziness I’d already experienced as family life. I had however gotten a brief but delicious taste of freedom and independence and I was reluctant to give that up. So for four years I lived with the constant feeling that I was being cheated out of my life, like my fledgling wings had been clipped the moment I learned to fly and all I could do was imagine what it must have been like to soar freely through the changing world of the late Sixties. Being deprived for so long of my liberty, my love and my source of happiness ground away at me until I turned angrily against all that stood in my way. But surprisingly many of the letters refer to me as being one of the luckiest and happiest of the crew, wherever I was, always crediting Christine for that--for being my girl. She was my link to the real world, the place I called home. Recently, the long-running play "The Fantastics" closed in New York City after a record breaking forty odd years--at the same theater no less. Never having seen it, I was surprised to learn while watching a TV news program about the play's closing that the song "Try to Remember" was actually written for the play. All these years I did not realize that. Then I found a letter to Christine that I had written from boot camp. "I'm listening to our song, The Fantastics' ‘Try to Remember’ on the radio." Any song referring to September, when we would see each other again, became “our song.” I had merely forgotten that which I thought I had never known. After deplaning at the San Diego airport we wandered aimlessly away from the gate, not sure what to do next, looking for clues. Then out of nowhere a uniformed porter appeared and grabbed the orders right out of our hands. "Follow me,” he snapped, directing us toward the exit! We obediently followed though not quite sure why and certainly not so smartly. One of the guys whispered that this bossy porter was in fact a United States Marine in dress uniform. "Marine? Hey wait a minute. We joined the U.S. Navy." What the fuck’s going on? The marine hustled us over to the edge of the arrivals curb. "Shut your pie holes and stand on that line!" His commands were spoken with such authority that we did not for one instant consider disobeying them. We scooted our toes up to the yellow line, like he said. "Line 'em up pukes." We lined them up. It was a little disconcerting not to mention embarrassing being spoken to in that manner, especially in front of all the people meeting loved ones or waiting nearby for cabs, strangers now who had for the past few hours been our fellow travelers. Now they to paid us no mind at all; they simply went about their business, indifferently. It was nothing to them... "Ten hut!" All of us knew what that meant from “Rin-Tin-Tin” or maybe from the “Sergeant Bilko” show, and we sure did know what to do and popped right to it. Still, it seemed to me, somewhat presumptuous of the marine to assume that we did at this point. "What's that in your mouth maggot?" Excuse me? No one had ever called me a maggot before. I twitched. "Gum," I said, bristling belligerently. "What did you say to me maggot?" “It's gum,” I said, “Care for a piece," stupidly wise-guying it? The marine's jugular veins suddenly swelled up like somebody had shoved a tire pump up his ass and at that instant the last vestige of civilian life vanished like the flavor of the stale wad of chewing gum stuck between the teeth of my big mouth. He screamed two inches from my face. "SIR! GUM, SIR!" "Sir, gum, Sir." "I can't hear you maggot!" "SIR, GUM, SIR!!!" "Get rid of it maggot." I started to move my hand towards my mouth, thinking I might be able to wipe some of the United States Marine's spittle off my face and at the same time get rid of the offending gum. "Did I say you could move maggot?" "DID I MAGGOT?" "No Sir." "I CAN'T HEEEAR YOU MAGGOT!" "SIR NO SIR!" I was starting to get the hang of it already and getting a little tired of it at the same time. I spat my last piece of Beemans out into the arrival zone, as far as I could possibly get it. So there we waited...and waited.... and waited. The marine stood off to the side, distancing himself from us maggots. With his legs spread slightly apart and his hands locked behind his back, he stared blankly out toward the cars arriving to pick up those who were going about their enviable lives. Every so often the marine clicked his heels together and saluted another military guy--some sergeant or admiral. I didn't know one from the other. I started to think about Christine. “Should have taken that college deferment. Should not have let this happen. Should have been paying better attention, been more on top of things. Shoulda, coulda, woulda. Oh well, too late to think about that now.” Sure hoped she wasn't pregnant. That would sure complicate things. “Should have put my car on blocks. No, it was better to let Harry take care of it for me. That way it will be ready to drive soon as I get back home.” “No keg parties this summer. That’s for sure.” Couldn't go long on airplane food, even in those days. I was getting a little hungry. Didn’t want to risk looking at my watch, but I was beginning to wonder how long we had been standing there doing absolutely nothing, like a bunch of edgy dogs made to sit in a row. I also wondered if we were impressing the United States Marine with how long we were able to stand at attention--us rugged Oregonian outdoorsmen. Before it was warm, now it was getting chilly. “Be nice if that fucking marine would just let us move around some, get the blood circulating a bit.” I remembered the recruiter saying not to bring a jacket or anything. We wouldn't need it where we were going--just a shaving kit and tooth brush, not even a comb. I wondered about the future, about how different life would be in the military. It was going to take some getting used to, I guessed. "How-the-hell-long are we going to have to stand here like this anyway," I wondered to myself? "I'll be glad when this bullshit is over and we can start training." By the time the gray bus pulled up to the curb, bone cold desert air had settled in for the night and the previously busy airport had become nearly deserted. It was well-past midnight when the marine, whose head was shaped like a three-pound coffee tin, returned our Manila envelopes and herded us onto the bus, which was packed with more tired, anxious fellows just like ourselves. "No talking on the bus," he said. Some of us had to stand. Now we were on an interminable bus ride. For several hours the bus crawled along the empty streets of San Diego, passing the same places over and over, aimlessly it seemed, on what was actually a fifteen-minute drive to the naval station. I wondered if the driver was lost. None of us felt like saying anything. At about four in the morning the gray bus slowly rolled through the main gate at USNTC (United States Naval Training Command). A man wearing a white sailor suit with a pistol on his web belt stiffly waved us through. All of the buildings were ochre colored and all the occupants sleeping. By this time we were all as dead tired as corpses hauled to a cemetery in a donkey cart. A duty seaman took us to an empty barracks and told us to turn-in on the bunk-beds lined-up along the walls. "And no talking.” Right. Everyone collapsed fully dressed on the bare bunks and immediately fell into a deep slumber........... Chapter Five "BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG, REVEILLE! REVEILLE!" Not more than fifteen minutes later some inconsiderate knucklehead flicked on the lights and stood in the barracks doorway banging a nightstick on the inside of an empty steel garbage can. My first thought was that someone had mistakenly awakened the wrong barracks. Didn't he know we were the new guys for crying out loud? We hadn't even started our training yet, had barely fallen asleep. Hell, it was still dark outside. “What the fuck?” "YOU GIRLS GOT ONE MINUTE TO GET YOUR PUSSYS OUTSIDE AND INTO FORMATION!!! ON THE DOUBLE!!! Thus so rudely yanked back from a momentary trip to dream-land, I somnambulated out the door, on the double, with the rest my groggy company, reminding myself of something I had heard earlier, "LAY LOW, BLEND IN, DON'T VOLUNTEER" The obnoxious fellow doing all the yelling was an impeccably dressed little prick in a crisp white uniform. He wore a perfectly adjusted (two fingers above the eyebrow) regulation white hat on top of his perfectly trimmed head. Around his neck was a perfectly rolled black silk scarf which was tied in a precise square knot that rested exactly where it should rest--neatly at the notch of the collar of his crisp, white jumper, so that if you placed your finger in the notch it would touch both the top of the knot and the bottom of the notch at the same time. If you could see his brass belt buckle which was hidden by his jumper, you would be stuck by its mirror polish, and if you knew to look, you would also see that the brass tab on the end of the Cheer-white web belt was protruding from the buckle just far enough so that you could see all of the polished tab but not a trace of the white web belt that held up his wrinkle-free pure white cotton trousers. His name was Cisco--Mister Cisco to us. Most impressive of all were Mister Cisco’s gleaming, black dress shoes. As shiny as burnished onyx, they were objects of art, which we, at first, naively mistook for brand new patent leather. When the sun came up that morning, miniature suns also rose on the spit-shined toes of Mister Cisco’s remarkable shoes. What skill it took to bring out that shine would, in the coming weeks, be imparted to us through a process as tried and true and as old as the Navy itself. Mister Cisco was to be our roll model, guide and mentor. We believed that he knew as much about the Navy as any person alive. A model sailor, he was clean, neat and as bright and shiny as his shoes. Among the many important things he instructed us in were the sailor’s arts of clothes washing, clothes drying and clothes folding. Mister Cisco demonstrated the proper way to stow our uniforms in our sea bags and in our lockers, neatly stacked with the outer folds on the right, "pussy to the left." Trousers, shirts, sox, skivvies, everything, was stowed pussy to the left. That was easy to remember. He showed us how to make up our racks (bunks) so taught that a dime would bounce off the "fartsack" mattress cover. A wool blanket, squarely folded, was laid ever so precisely at the foot of the rack, pussy to the left of course. He showed us how to use a broom and a swab and scrub brushes to keep our barracks white-glove spic and span at all times. A speck of dust in an obscure corner discovered by an astute inspector was not only a punishable offense; it was an absolute outrage. Mister Cisco showed us how to polish our Springfield rifles so they would glint in the sunlight when we marched across the Admiral Chester A. Nimitz field (also referred to as the "grinder”). We were to call them pieces, not rifles and definitely not guns. "This is your piece (holding the Springfield rifle at present arms) and this is your gun (touching his crotch). This is for fightin'. This is for fun." I'd already heard that little ditty from my gun-nut dad who had remembered it from his own Navy boot camp in World War II. The barrels were plugged, in case we found a bullet somewhere and wanted to shoot Mister Cisco. Over mundane matters we hadn’t even considered in civilian life we were now driven to obsession. Every minute of the day was crammed with the minutia of navy life. Any thoughts of home or girlfriends, and it was nearly impossible to keep them from popping up, had to be snitched on the sly like a tasty crumb, often at the risk of miss-stepping in a marching drill or not noticing, during a deck seamanship class, how the end of a piece of rope (it was to be called line) bends around itself and then dives through a loop to form a bowline. Every waking minute was dedicated to a specific task in the relentless pursuit of total navy-regulation perfection. Each of us was destined to look exactly like Seaman Apprentice Mister Cisco and as it was required that we achieve each step toward that goal at prescribed increments, otherwise there would be blistering hell to pay. By the end of the day we were too tired to lay awake and think of home. Little red suns had set on Mister Cisco’s heels and it was time to get some precious sleep. But I'm getting way ahead of myself. For the first three days we languished at "Receiving and Orientation" or R&O, ripening in unwashed civilian clothes, stubble-footing around in sleep-deprived sloppy formation: over to the infirmary as human pincushions to receive a multitude of shots, another place to listen to a monotonous reading of the “Uniform Code of Military Justice.” It was absolutely impossible to stay awake during the stupifyingly boring recitation. One at a time those who couldn't were ordered by the acutely observant Mister Cisco to drop-down and give him an equally impossible number of push-ups on the spot and then expect to spend the better part of the evening doing penance at a "marching party." Every article of the UCMJ concluded with a warning of dire consequences for any infractions with the ominous admonition, "As a court martial may direct," even the part about having sex with a girl under the age of eighteen. Sure hoped Christine, who had not yet reached that blessed age of consent, wasn't pregnant. Sounded to me like we had pretty much relinquished what remained of our constitutional rights; hell, I wasn't even sure we were citizens anymore. Much of the time in those first few days we sat in the bleachers at R&O and waited for the next indignity. Even the most mundane procedures were done in such a way as to maximize our discomfort--such as the time we marched over to visit “Dr. Payne” for a fluoride treatment. In a large room were several rows of small sinks mounted in little cabinets, one for each of the 80 or so men in our company. At each sink was a paper cup containing a gray glob of paste and a throwaway toothbrush. On command and all in practiced unison we took the toothbrush and scooped up all of the gooey paste, which had the gritty consistency and flavor of Ajax, put the vile stuff into our mouths and then were told to wait at rigid attention until ordered to "Commence brushing," every one at precisly the same rate, until the command was given to “Ready Stop.” "Ready! Begin! And no spitting. No swallowing. No gagging." As we brushed, gushing saliva drooled down onto our shirts and we brushed and we gagged, and we tried our best not to swallow one drop of that gawdawful disgusting crap. "No swallowing!" This went on like everything else—seemingly forever. Then as always there was the routine that accompanied everything we did. "What's you first general order?" It was to pound them permanently into our skulls. One by one, with mouths brimming with gum-burning foam we sputtered out the Ten General Orders. "Sir! My first general order is Sir! To take charge of this post and all government property in view, Sir!" The Fluoride trickled down the raw backs of our throats while we gagged and choked our way through every one of Ten General Orders and then the tiresome "I CAN"T HEAR YOU!" routine as well. That dentist was the kind if given the opportunity, would have relished pulling our teeth out, sans Novocain. What can be more appalling than a sadistic dentist? All across the room guys were throwing up in the sinks. Unauthorized vomiting earned the offenders several dozen push-ups on the spot. The method worked too. Thirty-five years later I can still remember many of the Ten General Orders and...And I still have all of my teeth. Boot camp was populated with the kind of bullies every boy grows up trying to avoid--the one's whose credo is "Never turn down a chance to screw somebody up." Most of the people who pass through basic training go right on through without a hitch and on to the fleet to become good old U.S. Navy sailors. The ones who enjoy the training environment and choose to remain after grunting their way through it are like those little floaters that don't go down with the first flush. Whenever we marched past another company that had already been issued uniforms, they whispered "Squirrels." In the chow hall everyone called us "Squirrels." On the third day we got our heads shaved, but we still wore our reeking civilian clothes. "Squirrels. Squirrels." Goddamn civvies. Now, on top of the ripening BO, they itched of the cut hair that worked its way down our sweaty necks all the way to our crotches. WE COULDN'T WAIT TO GET OUT OF THEM. And that was the genius of military training, to turn us against all the last remnants of civilian life, and we were totally oblivious to it. The pig iron began to melt; the mold was waiting to be poured. Uniforms were issued at the end of the first week. Dungarees, blue chambray shirts and a blue baseball cap constituted the recruit uniform. We also got our dress whites, (like the ones Mister Cisco wore) working whites, blue wool work uniforms, the Navy dress blue uniform with white piping on the collar and the thirteen button trouser flap (representing the thirteen colonies), also two web belts (white and blue), one black silk scarf, one black knit watch cap, several pairs of black sox and two pairs of black dress shoes just like Mr. Cisco’s. But, unlike Mister Cisco's, ours were still stiff and dull. Like a painter’s canvas they were ready for an artistic application of spit, polish and elbow grease. Also we got one pair of black "boondocker" marching boots, two pairs of parade leggings--one brown and one white, a blue jacket and a pea coat, three or four white sailor's hats, underwear (skivvies) and a dark blue knit bathing suit and some towels and washcloths. Sometime soon thereafter we were each issued a vintage 1903 Springfield rifle Boy, were we ever proud the first time we marched in formation, wearing our stiff new dungarees just like everyone else, with rifles on our shoulders, pounding the grinder in hard-heeled boondockers, real recruits at last. Just reeking of mothballs, our company marched past a fresh-shaved company of awkward newcomers still clothed in civvies. "Squirrels," we whispered; sorry looking bunch they were. Then we breezed past another company in dungarees that didn't still smell of mothballs. "Squirrels," they whispered. The distinctions between companies faded as we washed the newness out of our clothes, and it was as much for the purpose of pecking our way up the boot camp ladder as to get them clean that we scrubbed so hard. Eventually the only way to distinguish one company from another was by the large gold numbers emblazoned on the blue company guidon and it was that number more than anything else signified each company's standing in an endless chain running through the Recruit Training Command. We were Company 406. Company 407 was a mangy bunch of squirrels. We were nipping at the heels of Company 405. The shortest man in the company was given the honor and title of, "Guidon Barer." Proudly thrusting the guidon forward, recruit Higgins preceded the company by three or four steps everywhere we marched. Having an 80-man company following his lead soon went to his head and so we started referring to him as "Napoleon Bonerpart"--Little Boner for short. The company was lined-up tall men in the front of each squad tapering down in size to the rear. This created the illusion of uniform height plus the foreshortening effect made the company appear longer than it actually was. A further enhancement of the illusion was created by the difference in height between the squad leaders and Little Boner. He made us look great and he knew it. Natural selection placed me at the lead of Second Squad, no matter that I wasn't born with the leadership gene as well, and couldn't get my squad to do anything without first taking a vote on it. Squad leaders were excused by reason of superior rank from certain duties, like cleaning behind the head (toilet) with a special toothbrush when your squad had "head" duty. I did have to choose the guy to do it though, employing my usual method, a drawing of broom straws. One Sunday afternoon I peered longingly out a window at some water skiers on Mission Bay. They were less than half a mile but a whole universe away--men and women together enjoying the afternoon. Damn! What a lousy way this was to spend the summer when you're nineteen--It'd be just as bad at fifty-four I suppose--No, worse, much worse. I missed Christine. I missed my old carefree life and freedom. I felt like a fool for letting this happen to me. And I had four years of this life to look forward to--putting up with endless bullshit from a bunch of assholes. "How's it going down there with that toothbrush," I helpfully inquired? "Fine, fuck off asshole!" I probably could have had the guy disciplined for insubordination, but two weeks into it already and I still didn't give a shit. I felt I could handle anything on the boot camp agenda, but there was one thing that had been gnawing an anxious pit in my guts: actually something that had haunted me since childhood. My father told me once, several times in fact, like it was the worst experience of his life, about the sixty-foot tower he had to jump from when he went through Navy boot camp in Norman, Oklahoma during WW II. It was the only thing that he ever admitted to being afraid of, besides snakes--and he was a combat veteran aboard a ship that had been attacked by Kamikazes! That one thing had been my only aversion to joining the Navy over any other branch of the service. If it scared my Dad, the thought of it petrified me. I asked around if anyone else had heard about the tower, which began a scuttlebutt that eventually got back to me with the tower having grown an additional twenty feet. We had to be prepared to jump off the flight deck of a modern aircraft carrier... Holy Shit! A collective shudder swept through the barracks on the day Mister Cisco ordered us to get our swimming trunks and a towel. I remembered a bit of fatherly advice. "One hand on your balls Charlie and one on your nose—and whatever you do, don't look down." At the pool, all but a couple of daredevils (or bullshitters) were relieved at the sight of a twenty-foot platform instead of the eighty-footer. Not expecting any breaks at this point in our training we expected to surely face the higher one on another day. To a few guys, however, this jump may as well have been a two hundred foot suicide dive into shark-infested waters. Several recruits, mostly Midwesterners, couldn't swim at all--not a stroke, but that didn't excuse them from the swim test. It was, after all, a test. The so-called lifeguards lined up the entire company of 80 or so recruits at the deep end and marched us over the side like Walt Disney driving the lemmings over the cliff, swimmers and non-swimmers alike. In the ensuing chaos, some of the terrified non-swimmers tried to climb onto the backs of us swimmers who were simply trying to get out of their way and swim out around the buoys that defined a U-shaped course out into the middle of the Olympic-sized pool and back. Some of us tried to help those in peril and were adamantly whistled away by a lifeguard. On completion of the test, Mister Cisco directed those crawling out of the pool to some bleachers at poolside. A handful of recruits continued to thrash about in the pool, all of them clearly in trouble, including one I had tried to help. The sadistic lifeguards casually watched as one-by-one the boys went under. Only at the last possible second did they extended a pole to the drowning man, pulling him over to the side coughing and hacking and puking like a half-drowned rat. The last sinker they toyed with like a catch-and-release fish played to exhaustion. When he grabbed hold of the pole, the sadistic lifeguard let it slide trough his fingers as the panic-stricken recruit pulled it toward himself, futilely, hand over hand as he sank thrashing all the way to the bottom of the pool, still frantically clutching the aluminum shaft. The lifeguards performed this cruel stunt with such finesse that it was obviously a common highlight of their daily routine. Finally one of the lifeguards blithely dived in and hauled the waterlogged boy out by his neck. He threw-up up a lot of water and was bit shaken by the experience but otherwise okay--by outward appearances anyway. The fattest man in the company swam like seal but he was as big as a walrus and was having a difficult time hauling himself out over the side of the pool, and he wasn't getting any help either; the lifeguards refused to let him use the ladder while they belittled his obesity, once they even shoved him back in after a considerable effort to pull himself halfway out. Eventually he stopped trying and casually drifted out to the middle of the pool to collect himself and gather strength. That infuriated the lifeguards. He could have floated forever, and for a few defiant minutes that appeared to be his intention. Eventually seaman recruit Moon drifted over to the side of the pool and with one tremendous heave, hauled himself up out of the pool and then to a standing ovation he triumphantly rejoined his mates waiting in the bleachers. It was a win of sorts for us, but for our unauthorized outburst of cheer, Mister Cisco awarded the entire company with the regular punishment of a tortuous number of pushups followed by marching at double-time for the rest of the day. Some time later we heard that a recruit had drowned over at the pool--they simply let him sink to the bottom and didn’t pull him out soon enough. Nobody in my company believed it was anything but murder. But we felt powerless to say anything. Who would listen? We had no proof. And we didn’t want to stir-up any more trouble than we already had. 7/29/66 Dear Christine, Tonight I’m the happiest guy in Camp Nimitz. I got all of your first letters today and I just got through reading them. I can’t possibly begin answering all or part of them now. I got the little one that you mailed the 25th. God I’m as relieved as you are. I’m going to be much happier now. Everything happened all at once. As you can tell, I’m hurrying. Prunes are plums, raisins are seedless grapes, and erasers are rubber and silicone (so are balloons). They just shut off the lights so I waited until everyone was settled and asleep and I snuck down to the other end of the barracks behind a bunk where a yard light shines through the window and here I am keeping an eye out for the guard. All of your letters and good news put me in such a happy state that I don’t care if they catch me and put me in the 40-50 company. I have more love for you than most people could imagine. Time will fly and we’ll be together soon. When I see you for the first time I think I’ll just—I don’t know what I’ll do. I have lots of friends here and I’m getting more accustomed to everything, but it seems like I miss you more all the time. You’re right I am thinking of you 90 percent of the time. About Hiroshima, all wars are ugly but some are closer to evil. There is no glory in any act of war, maybe courage and bravery, but killing is always followed by remorse and sorrow. I’m sorry but I can’t write very long tonight. I read your letters and I’m thinking of your problems because I love you and I understand how you feel. I’ll love you forever and ever. Goodnight, Chuck Several weeks into boot camp, one recruit came down with a case of the measles and had to be quarantined over at the base infirmary for a few days. He wasn't all that sick, but measles could sweep through a battalion at the speed of light. The patient returned three days later, rested and revivified and that evening he regaled us with intriguing tales of the good life over at the measles ward. It was like the time Cool Hand Luke escaped from the chain gang for a few days, except not quite--there were no girls, and it wasn’t so much about how great it was at the infirmary as much as how unpleasant it wasn’t. The rest of us gathered around and listened enviously. "We just laid around and watched TV and read magazines, played cards, wrote letters home, no marching parties, no push-ups, nothin', most of all no Mister Cisco, just like a vacation, and excellent chow too. And no five o'clock reveille neither." What a lucky break, to get away from the folding clothes pussy-to-the-left and Ten General Orders tiresome nonsense for a while. It got three of us Oregonians to thinking, thinking about getting some measles of our own: by rubbing our hands over the chest and back of the next man to develop the telltale spots. Fortunately no one snitched on us; in fact there was even considerable admiration for our daring do. "Godspeed." The caper succeeded without a hitch and within the week three new victims of the epidemic filed, one morning, through the swinging doors of the measles ward. Above the doors hung a wooden plaque with the medical name of our affliction painted on it in big serious looking letters--RUBELLA. Hell, it may as well have been leprosy or Bubonic Plague; whoever heard of Rubella? It was exactly as the first guy had described. He forgot, however, to mention the fact that we had to swab and wax the floor twice a day. That was not a problem. We managed to suffer the indignity despite our "grave" condition. Actually we enjoyed using a big power buffer for a change instead of doing all the work on our hands and knees. It was fun feeling a bit like a regular human being again for a change, at least for a few days. Floor waxing is a Navy obsessive compulsion, except on ships where slippery pitching decks are hazardous. Polishing brass is another obsession. Even a lowly brass bolt on the head is treated with Never-Dull reverence. It is intended to reflect the same kind of reverence metaphorically upward onto "The Big Brass." So we also had to polish a few doorknobs: a small price to pay for the high life over at the RUBELLA ward. Meals in the infirmary were served buffet-style three times a day at a location a couple doors down from the Rubella ward. Hungry patients started lining up early for the next meal, which the mess cooks rolled down the hall from the galley in a stainless steel steam cart. The approaching clatter of the metal steam-cart signaled to us RUBELLA patients that it was time to burst through the ward doors and plod zombie-like down the corridor toward the horrified recruits waiting patiently in line for their chow. At the sight of us moaning, “Rooobella Rooobella," the other patients, who were no doubt much worse off than we were, scattered like a bunch of chickens. We shamelessly loaded up our trays, all the while feigning terrible agony and then zombied back to our ward. "Rooobella, Rooobella!" It was an ongoing tradition at the infirmary to keep the disease from spreading, no thanks to us Oregonians. Three days later, a lot had changed back at Company 406 and we “Rubellions” had some catching up to do. The shine had worn off our caper as well and wind of it must have blown Mister Cisco's way because I now found myself demoted to second place in my squad, behind a fellow named Langford. He was somewhat effeminate and bashful, and he had a butt shaped like a woman’s, which I now had to look at for the next few months. I was glad that I had treated him well because he returned the favor and even apologized for the coup, which he wasn't too keen on anyway--not wanting the responsibility. It was dumb luck on his part for being another tall guy, only slightly shorter than myself, and Karma on mine. "How's that toothbrush holding up there Ras?" "Fine, fuck off asshole." During a routine inspection one day, some mysterious smudges were discovered on several white T-shirts hanging on the clothesline. We hand-washed our laundry with plain soap and scrub brushes on two long concrete tables on the patio behind the barracks, and then hung it in neat rows attached to clotheslines with short lengths of thin white rope called clothes-stops, which we tied in perfect little square knots. One granny knot that day and the smudges totaled enough demerits to knock us out of the lead in the "Company of the Week" competition--which was a huge disappointment to one Master Chief Signalman, H.O. Webb. He was our Company Commander--adjutant Mister Cisco's own boss and mentor. Now there was going to be hell to pay. Though none of us recruits was able to find the offending smudges (we even doubted their existence) it was quite easy to identify the filthy slob who had left them there. A soft-spoken fellow named White was the only black man in the 80-man company. His skin wasn't really very dark at all; in fact he was a shade lighter than the company's only Mexican (It was 1966 and American wouldn't be tagged onto Mexican for two more decades). He was even whiter than some of the white boys. Most of us didn't even realize that White was black until one of the Texans pointed it out. Not that White was trying to conceal the fact by not announcing on day one, "Hey guys, guess what, I'm a Negro," but Tex hated him anyway for his perceived deceit and angled for a way to get even. Tex was absolutely convinced that White was the dirty-fingered culprit--claimed he had noticed White that morning running his "dirty nigger fingers" along the shirts; he even had a witness. And that was proof enough for the vigilante group that formed to carry out the punishment. They carried White, who offered no resistance whatsoever out to the patio and shoved him into the Dempster dumpster and then latched the door. One of the vigilantes who had often bragged that before joining the navy he had been a professional boxer (almost certainly a total fabrication) planted himself in front of the dumpster and defied any of the dissenting "nigger lovers" to free the unfortunate White, who hadn't let out a peep throughout the entire ordeal. The tense standoff lasted several minutes until an indignant Langford big-butted his way through the crowd and stormed right past Joe Palooka who did nothing but stand his ground with his chin out and his hands on his hips. Langford unlatched the door and invited recruit White to come out. He refused to come out. He was too afraid, maybe too ashamed, or perhaps too angry. We were all ashamed for allowing it happen, even some of the ones who put him in there. Langford stayed by the dumpster after everyone else had dispersed, then he and White had a long talk. Finally Langford helped White climb out of the dumpster and accompanied him back into the barracks. Nothing more was said of it. In the end it was White who won for our company its one and only honor when he received the top academic award for the entire battalion and with it our one gold star for the guidon. Looked real nifty at the graduation parade—even to the Texans who regarded it as simply another lone star. A good portion of our day-to-day training was dedicated to that final event on Prebble Field, the battalion graduation ceremony and parade, and we drilled for it incessantly. "Companeee, ten hut! Forward, houh! Left turn, houh! Right turn, houh! Dig those heels in! Right oblique, houh! To the rear, houh! “Dive over those pieces! Present arms. Left shoulder arms! Right shoulder arms! Sixteen count manual, houh!" And on and on and on. Sometimes thoughts drifted to girlfriends back home or to the airplanes taking off from nearby San Diego airport. Oh to be on one of those babies, going home, leaving this US Navy shit far behind. "Stop thinkin' ‘bout Suzie Rotten Crotch!” The sixteen-count manual of arms is a sequence of hand maneuvers with the piece that is intended to look really sharp when done with coordination and precision. It was the one thing that seemed to be of particular importance in the boot-camp experience, and we were forced to practice it over and over and over, fine-tuning even the subtlest moves. Our first attempts were Three Stooges slap-stick as Springfield rifles clattered to the pavement. Occasionally someone got whacked by a misguided rifle as we practiced the complex acrobatics of the “sixteen count manual of arms.” Dropping your piece got you a marching party, the routine penalty for most screw-ups. Marching parties were always held at night, in small groups. Recruits were forced to march in place, for hours sometimes, with the piece held out at arms length. It didn't take long before your arms felt like they were on fire, and then it was you whole body. Some men who broke down and cried and were berated until they got up and continued. No mercy. None whatsoever. But marching parties weren’t the worst punishment--that was administered by a special disciplinary unit called the 40-50 Company, which was used as the ultimate threat against any bad behavior. The 40-50 Company was in fact only two men (runners they were called) and one prisoner. The first time we saw them was on the footbridge going over to the chow hall. The two runners, wearing shore patrol uniforms, ran on alongside a miserable soul who trotted along with a bucket in one hand and a shovel in the other. These he used to transfer a pile of sand from one location to another all day long. He wore only skivvies and boots with white sox stained pink from blood wicking up from his ravaged feet. When they passed, Mister Cisco barked the command, "eyes front," forbidding us to look directly at the prisoner. One time in the chow hall they came through with the same prisoner and made him gobble his food while sitting at attention as they screamed in his face the whole time. They didn't give him more than a minute to eat, before running him back out the door. Mister Cisco warned us that if anyone looked, they would be joining him. The next day we passed the same prisoner with different runners. He still carried the bucket, but this time it was filled with sand and tied with a piece of rope that sawed into the back of his sunburned neck. He cried like a baby as he held the shovel over his head with both hands and shuffled along at double-time to the quick cadence called by the runners, “leff-right-leff-right-leff-right-leff-right....” Later Mister Cisco told us it was because the recruit had jumped off the bridge the previous day into the canal that flowed toward Mission Bay. We lived in absolute terror of the 40-50 Company. Any thought of stepping out of line was quickly weighed against the certainty of going straight to that hell on earth. Our days of primary training at Camp Nimitz eventually came to a welcome end early one morning when we packed our sea-bags and marched over to the advanced training side. The nonsense was hardly over but we were no longer raw recruits in stiff boots and new uniforms tripping over our own feet as well as each other’s. The ten general orders were now as easy for us to recite as the alphabet is to a seven-year old, and we could throw our pieces through the sixteen-count-manual like we had been born with them. Our boondockers sparkled, as did our dress shoes. Recruit Moon had lost so much Twinkie fat that his trousers bunched-up in the back and he was exceedingly proud of the fact that he no longer jiggled like a bowl of Jell-O when he pounded his left foot hard into the pavement. All of us had turned brown in the California sun. Most importantly we were given some independence and personal responsibility. One of our own, recruit Stayton, was designated RCPO (Recruit Chief Petty Officer) and was put in charge of leading the company in marching drills. Now we could march without Mister Cisco leading us. Stayton had arrived at boot camp with the longest hair and the biggest mouth--talked a lot about surfing and cars. Supposedly he'd gone to a military prep school, which was probably the reason he got the prestigious job. He tended to be somewhat dictatorial but he also had to earn our respect, which we gave him sparingly, and so the company became a bit more democratic. We wanted to be the sharpest marching company of all and he thought he could best accomplish that by simply screaming his lungs out. "SIXTEEN-COUNT-MANUAL, HUT!" They could hear him all the way to Camp Nimitz. Well, the same thing that happened to Janice Joplin happened to him--after while his vocal cords broke down and he started quacking like a duck. We couldn't march anywhere without somebody mocking him. "Quack, Quack." Once he totally lost his cool over it and marched us headlong into another company like we were some kind of human bulldozer. We could have stopped on our own I suppose, if we'd wanted to, but instead we just followed his command and plowed right into them. Soon everybody was steering clear of the 406 dick brains. Mister Cisco, having returned to camp Nimitz to start a brand new company, stopped by one morning to pay us a visit. We gathered around him like he was a favorite teacher from grade school. He seemed proud of us--told us we were his first company and so forth. He would always remember us--that sort of thing. Fact was he said, he had gone through boot camp himself only a few months ago and then went directly to adjutant training. Look how far he'd come. Hell, he was the same age as us. Suddenly he didn't look so important. He even looked smaller than he had a minute before. Why the little prick, he would rue the day he met any of us out in the fleet, if in fact he ever got there. But hell, maybe he made a career of it. Could be he had what it takes—officer material: Rear Admiral Cisco. Just think. Our new home looked exactly like the last one--except for the creepy neighbors; we had moved next door to a mysteriously vacant barracks. With the windows painted over, it stood amidst the other teaming barracks like an empty haunted house. The only occupants were a tormented young man and his harpies. It was the 40-50 Company. Day and night, the harassing shouts of the guards and the pitiful cries of their tortured prisoner emanated from an open second story window of the 40-50 barracks. All night long, the runners, who worked in shifts, woke up their prisoner on the half hour and ordered him to re-stow his locker after they had just scattered his clothing all over the place, while he briefly slept. We caught glimpses of the poor lad re-folding and stowing his clothes over and over and over and over throughout the terrible interminable night. The whole time he screamed the Ten General Orders at the top up his lungs. It was a different prisoner this time than the one we’d seen before. We figured the other one must have gone insane and they had kicked him out of the navy. Or maybe he died and a letter was sent to his parents regretting that he had suffered a fatal heat stroke or a heart attack or something in training, but he died serving his country, and soon they would be receiving a check for ten thousand dollars in the mail. What had this young man done? Strike an adjutant? Steal? Refuse to swim when he thought he might drown? Did he get too many demerits? The torment continued into the next morning as we busily scrubbed our clothes on the patio We did our best, for morale’s sake, to ignore what was happening across the way. Suddenly we heard a dreadful scream and all eyes shot up toward second story window of the 40-50 Company barracks. "I can't take it anymore!" Then, to our absolute shock and horror, a screaming man flew right out the open window, like Superman without a cape. But unlike Superman, this man fell fast and hard to the ground with a dull sickening thud. Dropping our wet shirts and trousers we dashed over to the brick wall separating the patio from the off-limits front yard, and pulled ourselves up to see over it. The recruit was lying convulsing in the grass next to the sidewalk when the two runners ran up and started kicking him in the ribs. "GET OUT OF OUR YARD MAGGOT! GET OUT OF OUR YARD!” When the runners glanced over their shoulders and saw us staring in appalled disbelief, they sneered, "Mind your own business squirrels or we'll have you too." Slumping back down the wall we returned to our clothes washing. Feeling like a bunch of cowards, we were unable to look each other in the eyes for our shame. As civilians not one of us would have hesitated helping that poor man; that was our first impulse. But now we were too afraid to go to the aid of another, more fearful of bucking the system and paying the consequences than getting hurt in a fray. We had all knuckled-under to authority and it didn’t feel so good either. I have often fantasized about us saving that poor fellow from those goons. Sure there would have been some nightstick bruises and other repercussions, but bruises heal. At the very least it would have made a more interesting story--a better one. And it just might have shed some light on a darker side of boot camp training taking place at the time. Our former senses of self had melted away and we were now being cast into a fresh batch of uniformly obedient young men. I had forgotten some details of the incident until I read this account in one of my letters to Christine from boot camp. It was dated 8-18-66, Thursday night. [“Did I tell you we’re right next to 40-50? Well today some guy had all he could take of being in there, and that’s what he said just before he jumped out the window. He dove out the second story window headfirst and landed on the ground on his back—just missing the concrete. Anyway he was lying on the ground unconscious when those damned guards came down and started kicking him in the ribs and hollering at him to get up. But he couldn’t, so they called for an ambulance and sent him to the hospital where he tried to hang himself later. God! All he did was punch a Master at Arms (a Recruit) in the mouth. That was worth 30 days.”] By September, Company "406" was one of the lowest numbers around. The three hundreds were already dispersed throughout the fleet. We now marched with confidence and precision--never-mind Donald Duck quacking cadence and Little Boner goose-stepping out front. Like high school seniors our company was cock of the walk. To call anyone a squirrel at this point would itself be squirrelish. We continued to spend enormous amounts of time honing our marching skills, (especially the Sixteen-Count-Manual of Arms) spiffing-up our uniforms, competitively spit-shining our shoes, and fussing with our pieces until the polished steel glinted like chrome in the late summer sun. Our singular goal at this point, and we were goaded into it by Master Chief Signalman H.O. Webb, was to dazzle the spectators and blow away the competition on graduation day. Finally the day arrived and the long anticipated ceremony was about to begin. It had that particular air about it that all graduation days have, a mixture of prideful feelings of accomplishment tinged with a trace of something, not quite sadness, more a graveness, like a wake almost, where the survivors of some intangible loss rejoice in the bonding created by their shared experience, that and the thrill of moving on as a stronger and, in some way perhaps, better person. I could not wait to get the hell out of that circus. I still had an aching dent in my shinbone where the enraged chief once kicked me real hard for stowing all of my trousers with the bottom button illegally buttoned. I didn't even know that god-damned button was there. All I could think about now were "My Sweet Babies Arms" and driving my little black MGA roadster down the Oregon Coast highway, the very car of vivid recurring dreams that, to this day, can still revive ancient feelings of love left behind and youthful carefree days brought to an abrupt end. With two, depressingly short but extremely precious and welcome weeks of leave coming, I was going straight home just as soon as this ceremony was concluded and we were let loose. Chief Webb arrived at our barracks to lead us to the parade ground one last time. He was in full dress uniform. The breast of his jacket was draped with twenty-three years worth of hard-earned medals. Five black hash marks, each one representing four years of service ran down his left sleeve. He was the most senior of all the other Company Commanders in the battalion, many of whom were only first class petty officers, and this was his last assignment before retiring from a long career in the U.S. Navy. Finally he was warming up to us some, to the point of occasionally sharing a few riveting sea stories. We were planning to do the old man proud. The parade was a minor spectacle of military fanfare. A couple thousand sailors stood at attention in neat even rows on Prebble Field. They were decked out in bright white uniforms, gleaming shoes, white leggings, perfectly squared-away white hats, and impeccably rolled and tied scarves. A shiny but venerable bolt-action 1903 Springfield rifle rested on each man's shoulder. Looking out over the sea of white hats I could see the visitors on the viewing stands in their Sunday best peering through binoculars. Proud parents scanned the field for the big boy. Some Girls craned for a glimpse of their boyfriends lost in a sea of look-alikes. The boyfriend had radarred her in a long time ago and now it wasn't only his spine that was stiff, and it wasn't only him either. Some wizened recruit whispered through the corner of his mouth, "Foxes at 010 degrees, range 200 feet." The dignitaries sat at the center of the viewing stand: a state legislator, a minor defense contractor and his wife—probably the businessman who owned the company that poured the new cement on Prebble Field. "The Big Brass” sat in a row of gray folding chairs on a wooden platform that extended right up to the very edge of the field. They were the same officer's whose names and ranks we'd been required to memorize like a mantra, "LIEUTENANT COMMANDER HUNT SIR!" and who’s framed official photographs hung in a neat long row on the wall of the barracks hallway. We were actually going to get to see them up close now, I mean really close--in the flesh, eyeball to fucking eyeball, like looking into the faces of Gods, almost. First the Base Commander spoke. He wasn’t exactly a little man but not nearly as large as we had imagined. "Ladies and Gentlemen welcome to the United States Naval Training Command, blah, blah, blah. John Paul Jones, blah, blah, blah. Admiral Farragut, blah, blah, blah. Damn the torpedoes full speed ahead, (probably he actually said “fuck the torpedoes,” which couldn’t very well be printed in high school history books now could it? At least it wasn’t “darn those torpedoes” that he will always be remembered for.) Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. God, country, honor, Southeast Asia, blah, blah, blah, blah." Christ it was hot. Across the field several recruits fainted and fell to the pavement like so many sacks of potatoes, with a muffled splat and the wood and steel clatter of a Springfield rifle. "Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." Corpsmen dragged the sacks of potatoes to the sidelines and tossed them into a waiting ambulance. When that one was full they started on the next one. "Blah, blah, blah." Finally we were put at parade rest. Each of the officers took a long tiresome turn at the podium and added his own two bits of militaristic nausea and patriotic platitudes to the interminable proceedings. Moms fanned themselves with handkerchiefs. Dads lit-up Luckies, examined their watches and leaned on their elbows. The entire affair could have been conducted in ten minutes and there wasn't a person in sight who didn't wish it had been. It was like going to church for God’s sake on the hottest day of summer and it was obvious that the preacher was at least as eager for the Amen as were the fidgety congregation. Eventually the final boring windbag returned to his folding-chair and then at long last a stillness settled across the grinder. One could have heard a popcorn fart from the far side of Prebble Field. Blessed silence accompanied the stifling air of anticipation. Then, at a signal, everybody who wasn’t already standing stood. The bandleader’s finger tapped the microphone a couple of times loudly for a test, "Thwack-Thwack." There was an expectant pause. "Ladies and gentlemen our National Anthem." "And the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air..." Since boyhood I have pictured a rocket with red fire shooting out the end of it soaring into the night sky, then at the apex of its arc an atomic bomb explodes, bathing the tattered remains of our schoolyard flag in stark white light. I know it's not very patriotic, but hey, I was just a product of my environment--all that "duck and cover" bunkum they terrorized us kids with in the Fifties. (Now you try getting it out of your head.) Why the hell do you think they called us boomers anyway? After that the Marine Corps Band became momentarily silent so as to permit the audience to fully appreciate with all of their senses what was about to happen next. Lieutenant Commander Hunt then stood forth on his platform and gave the most important command of our entire boot camp experience. "Battalion, ten hutt.... Battalion, sixteen-count-manual, hutt." He made it sound as though it were merely an incidental starting point in the parade and not our superlative achievement after three and a half months of incessant drilling. It was in fact utterly magnificent; two thousand or so identical men tossing their Springfield rifles into the air, hands loudly slapping wooden rifle butts, heels clicking pavement, all in perfect synchronicity. For once not one Springfield fell to the ground. Moms and Dads clutched each other, girlfriends swooned, dignitaries nodded their approval, and the brass, well they had all seen it before but pretended to be impressed nonetheless because, after all, it was their parade too. The impression thus created was that anyone's knucklehead son could in fourteen brief weeks be transformed into a masterpiece of military precision. "If they could do that little sixteen count manual thing so easily honey, just imagine what else they could do." The Marine Corps Band at last broke into a rousing blast of John Phillip Sousa's greatest hit, the all-American, goose flesh popping, "Washington Post March." Each company then pealed off into one long continuous procession and marched proudly around the perimeter of Prebble Field and then down past the viewing platform where all of the officers stood at attention, sweating like steam-line cooks in the blazing September sun. The Base Commander signaling a "job well done" returned the salute of each RCPO as the companies passed in review. We pounded our boondockers down onto the concrete like we were trying to bust up the great slab. Company 406 had just turned left at the front right corner of the field (from our point of view) and was approaching the reviewing stand when I suddenly began to imagine myself in an old flickering World War II newsreel. As Nazi soldiers turn toward a demonically saluting Adolph Hitler I am shocked to recognize my own face in that human river of goose-stepping soldiers. It was at that instant before the order was given to "eyes right" that I decided to do something crazy. Well I didn't really decide actually, the idea just sort of came out of nowhere, an impulse of pent-up rage at my circumstances and of who I had let myself become. There was no time to consider the consequences--it just happened. In the momentary span of time that it took to snap my head from straight forward to ninety degrees right, I managed to contort my soldierly expression into one of total absurdity, a look that could be described as a combination of Alfred E. Newman and Little Richard with a touch of Jack Nicholson--"Heeere's Charlie!" Yes, here I was, the same person as always on the inside, but masquerading outwardly as some kind of marching military marvel. I felt like a joke. The Commander was returning his salute to RCPO Stayton when I stepped directly into his line of sight with my face frozen in a broad clownish grin. Our eyes locked and tracked as the newsreel ground to a halt. Time seemed to stop altogether. The Commander’s eyes flared. My face stayed as it was, either in defiance, or fear, or maybe I simply hoped he would think I always look that way. I mean, is smiling a court martial offense? Not according to the UCMJ it wasn’t, and besides there wasn’t enough time left to undo it anyway. It was done and I didn't snap out of it until, "Eyes Front!" Resuming my soldierly composure I immediately cursed myself; what the hell made me do it? Surely he had noted the company number--406, second man, second squad. "Rasmussen that's the one. Two weeks in 40-50, then we'll run the insolent son-of-a-bitch through the whole damned program again--see if he comes out grinning next time." I may as well forget about leave--forget about my girlfriend. Oh man, why did I have to go and do such a stupid-ass thing on the very last day? If I had been marching behind myself down that palm-lined street I'd have kicked my own butt all the way back to the barracks. Now for the first time we were going break ranks and walk up the very sidewalk that crossed the sacred front yard and enter the barracks through the heretofore forbidden front door. Chief Webb waited for us on the quarterdeck (referred to in civilian parlance as the porch). Smiling proudly, the old salt strutted back and forth like a rooster waiting for his chickens to return to the coop. He held in his hands a large stack of Manila envelopes. That little prick Cisco was there too, with a bunch of smaller envelopes containing green government checks with each of our names printed on them. We cheerfully examined our orders and listened intently to the Chief's final words of wisdom as he shook each of our hands. "Congratulations sailor." Each in turn we beamed, "SAILOR." But I worried; did he see me do it? Were the Base Commander and the 40-50 runners on their way over at that very minute in a jeep? I should have been more cautious, "LAY LOW BLEND IN." Just then someone shouted "ATTENTION ON DECK!" We all popped-to like bunch of racked-up bowling pins, even Chief Webb for Peat’s sake, right in front. It was the Base Commander and two petty officers. My heart was going like a Tommy-gun. Then the Base Commander made yet another boring speech. "At ease gentlemen. I want to extend my congratulations to each and every one of you fine young men for a job well done. Now that you are United States Navy sailors you must always remember to live up to the highest standards of our venerable institution and wherever you travel around the world never forget this one thing--that you are ‘emissaries’ of the United States of America." I made every effort to exude respect, pride, and dignity. No more clown-face, no siree sir; I wasn’t out the gate yet. Then he went next door to company 407 and said the very same thing. And that was bootcamp--a fourteen-week transformation that was to chart the courses of each of our lives for the next several years. [Six years later I was attending the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon, when I caught up with someone who had just passed me by--something familiar about him. Turned out to be one of the guys from company 406, a squad leader. I had recognized the back of his head. He was the only one I ever saw again after graduation day.] Finally the Chief marched us over to dispersing to cash our checks and then to waiting gray busses routed to various points of departure. I got on the bus bound for the San Diego Airport and didn't look back for thirty-five years. Chapter Six Christine met me at the Portland airport. She had ridden up with my parents in the family car. We were thrilled to be reunited. Squeezing each other's hands and holding each other again was a joy far exceeding any boot camp fantasies. A reacquainting of lovers is like the opening of a door to one's dearest treasures, a familiar fragrance, a laugh, a touch, a smile--all those things taken away for a while grow more intense in their absence. To have them back again was the reawakening of my heart--the revival of my spirit. I was home again. On the drive down the Oregon coast, they made small talk up front while Christine and I cooed and snuggled discreetly in the back seat of the dusty blue Chrysler with the pushbutton automatic. In a diner on the way home, I produced a glossy photo of company 406 that had been enclosed in the envelope with my orders. The first thing my dad wanted to know was, did we have to jump off the high tower? "Humph," he snorted when I told him we didn't, “bunch-a candy asses.” Noticing Master Chief Petty Officer H.O. Webb standing in front of the company, he said "Jesus Christ Charlie, a Master Chief pushin' boots? That guy must have screwed up big.” Sailor to sailor, I appreciated the insights of my father, but at the same time I also felt strangely protective of the Chief, which surprised me. By the time we arrived in Toledo I was crippled with desire. During those two short weeks of leave, we were apart only briefly and only when absolutely necessary. Once again it was us against the clock. People said I walked differently. I didn't feel much like hanging out with remnants of the old gang. I would shoot the breeze on a street-corner for a few minutes, but that was about it. The old life was over--that one carefree year. It was the beginning of deer season, so my brother and I, both skilled hunters, naturally trampled into the woods with our guns--just like old times. Christine waited in the pick-up with a schoolbook. It was one of those late afternoon, short-drive, what-the-hell sort of hunts. If we saw a spectacular buck we might shoot it. Anything else wouldn't be worth the effort--the fun being over once the trigger was pulled. We just wanted to commune with nature a while--especially me, one last time. But it wasn’t like previous hunts. I felt like an alien in the woods now, like I was just pretending to have the old life back. The continuity of my life had been cleanly broken. Once again Christine and I were counting the precious hours. School was our only obstacle. It was her junior year in high school and her present dream was to become an Oregon State cheerleader. My dream was to get the hell out of the United States Navy. We talked a lot about the nebulous future--it was all we had beyond those few days together, which was barely enough time to get used to each other before having to saying goodbye again--each goodbye being harder than the last. In the months and years ahead we would see very little of each other. Our main contact would be through letters and phone calls. A relationship begun in physical intimacy would have to sustain itself on shear devotion, longing and fantasy. Jan. 4,1967 8:40 pm Dear Christine, Here is a poem from Lord Byron's "On Parting" The kiss, dear maid thy lip has left Shall never part from mine, Till happier hours restore the gift Untainted back to thine By day or night in weal or woe, That heart no longer free, Must bear the love it cannot show, And silent ache for thee. Remember that I am dreaming of you when I sleep, and when I am awake. All my love Charles Six months later and nearly a year had passed since I joined-up on the ‘Cache Program” and my efforts at avoiding the war appeared to be successful. It seemed like soon the war would be over, and that I might eventually resume a normal life someday after all. But, who would have guessed the war in Vietnam would last seven more years, not me, that's for sure. It turned out to be the longest war in U.S. history. I was finishing up the final weeks of study at a Navy technical school at Great Lakes Naval Station north of Chicago, far from the sea of my ultimate destiny. I had scored high on the aptitude test in boot camp and was told that I could choose any school I wanted. I wanted to be a Photographer’s Mate. Everybody wanted to be a Photographer’s Mate. Consequently there were no openings. “Have you thought about electronics?” the Career counselor suggested encouragingly, steering me towards a growing “rate” hungry for skilled men and only recently for women as well, to work on the increasingly sophisticated systems of communications, radar, electronic warfare, etc. “Invaluable training for the civilian market too,” if I decided to return to that life in the distant future. There was no fucking IF about that aspect of my future, but he was right about getting some valuable training under my belt while I had the chance, so I signed up for the “prestigious” and notoriously difficult Communications Electronics School after lying that I had taken at least one semester of requisite trigonometry. That was a big mistake, one that inevitably caught up with me towards the end of the program as many of my classmates began to fail the increasingly difficult exams; flunk once and it was straight to the fleet as a lowly deck seaman. I began to devote every minute to my studies and just barely made it through the final weeks of ”A” School and graduated with a fundamental understanding of basic electronic theory and practice. I was now as ready as I was ever going to be to go out into the fleet as an Electronics Technician, or ET. The truth was, that as a technician, I always felt, for the following three years, that I was precariously holding my head just mere inches above the water and quite frankly there were many times when I was actually drowning in my work. I filled out my "dream sheet" with home ports of San Francisco or Seattle topping the list. Crossing my fingers for something glamorous, I hoped for a cruiser or a destroyer. A carrier would impress my dad; he served on the "USS Saratoga" in World War II and it was a source of pride for the rest of his life. Then I got my assignment--"USS Quapaw" ATF-110, homeport, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. They said it was some kind of tugboat. “Tugboat? Hawaiian Islands?” Postcard images swirled in my head: hula-dancers, palm trees, surfing, leis and fresh pineapple, the trip of a lifetime. Dream duty! Yippee! I'd be chugging around Hawaii on a goddamned tugboat. McHales Navy for sure. What a lucky son-of-a-bitch I was. 12 more days! (On the back of the envelope). March 5,1967 Sunday night Dearest Charles It's about 10:00. I'm sitting here on the couch watching "Porgy and Bess" on TV. Gosh I didn't do hardly anything this weekend. Friday I stayed home and Saturday night I went down to the show and talked to Billye while she worked. Then she, Kirk, and I went to the bowling alley and played pool. Billye stayed with me. Today we went over to her house and did homework. Grandma put Grandpa back in the hospital today. He just isn't well. He never eats, or reads, or watches T.V. anymore. He just sits. Oh lover, it worries me so much. I'm happy you're coming home so if anything should happen, you'll be here with me. I think if I am with you, I can stand anything. I need and love you so much. I want to walk through my whole life with you. I'll help you and you'll help me. We'll do everything together--just you and me. We won't ever let anything bother us. We will always be happy-go-lucky and never fight (at least not around bedtime). I can't believe how horny I am. Let's make out all the way home on the bus. Then when we get home we'll figure out some way to go to bed together. Remember when you came home from boot camp? We kissed & messed around all the way home, and were we ever "hot & bothered." I love to make love with you. I love everything about you. I want to dance with you when you come home and have intimate conversations. I'll do as much homework during spring vacation as I can. I told Mr. Tessacina that you were coming home, so I wouldn't see him for about 2 weeks. He just laughed. Right now is one of those days when I don't have a good deal to talk about. I'll wait a while, and then I'll have dozens of things to say. Goodnight Lover. I love you, Christine I had taken another two weeks leave at Christmas and two more weeks of leave that spring before reporting for duty aboard the tugboat. Christine and I had never been apart for more than a few months thus far and nine months into my enlistment I had already used eighteen months worth of leave time, seriously overdrawing my account and accruing a debt that my creditors would extract from me with obdurate indifference. Chapter Seven Strange, I remember thinking, that McHale’s Navy might have traveled beyond paradise, when I first learned that the USS Quapaw was last reported in Yokasuka, Japan. So that became my destination, not Waikiki after all. Memory fades at this point and comes back into focus in a barracks at Atsugi Air Force base in Japan. I have been waiting there two or three days for a flight after failing to catch-up with my ship in Yokasuka. No one seemed to know where she had disappeared to from there, most likely back to Pearl Harbor at the finish of a West Pacific cruise was one guess. The Navy is secretive, even to its own members, about the exact movements and whereabouts of its ships, which made searching for the elusive Quapaw as difficult for me as stalking an evasive enemy vessel. I spent my last night in Japan fitfully sleeping on a bench at the airbase waiting for an early-morning flight on a C-130 transport to Midway Island where I had heard through various sources that my little tugboat had gone to pick up a tow. I remembered watching the “Battle of Midway” on “Victory at Sea.” Cool-a flying tour of World War Two. The utilitarian aircraft carried only one passenger. I was surrounded by crates and machinery lashed to the ribs of the fuselage with tightly draw straps and cargo nets. Even the seat next to me was occupied by a stack of aluminum tin cases secured by a seatbelt. It was a cold, bumpy, deafening ride. Outside, just a few feet beyond the thin rattling skin of the fuselage, four enormous propellers ripped at the sky with brain-rattling vengeance. At around hour 20, freezing, exhausted, ravenously hungry and on the verge of a mental breakdown, I ventured forward and pounded on the cockpit door. “Jesus Christ!” I screamed at the pilot who was startled by the sudden intrusion, “How long is this fucking flight going to last anyway?” He yelled as loud as he could. “We’re almost there.” “What?” “I said we’re almost there!” When I griped about the cold the navigator tossed me some cargo blankets and was shocked and apologetic that I hadn’t been told that the aluminum tins I’d been riding next to all along each contained a complete meal: coffee in a thermos, dessert and everything. Four or five meals… Damnit, but better late than never. On Midway Island the wild goose chase continued. Yes the Quapaw had been there but just long enough to pick up a tow. “She should be back in Pearl by now.” I spent the day on Midway taking pictures of the gooney birds. That’s what the stranded Americans living there called the thousands of nesting albatrosses that populated the island, undisturbed by their human guests and their noisy airplanes. Solitary, gray, fluffy chicks that appeared, for all their down, to be even larger than the adults, waited patiently atop their individual nests for a parent to return crash-landing in with the day’s catch. That was all there was to do for fun on that tiny, parched, island, watching those goofey gooney-birds. A lone pool table occupied most of the rec-room and there was a pull-down movie screen but that was about it. No TV. Like the wandering albatross I was thrilled to catch the next flight out of there, this time to Hickam Field Air Base, right next door to Pearl Harbor. It was a sultry spring day on April 8 in 1967. I arrived, dripping with sweat in my Navy dress blues, at the Alpha docks, the two narrow piers reserved for rescue vessels at the head of the channel leading into to Pearl Harbor. With my sea-bag slung over my shoulder, I slogged down one of the concrete piers toward the homely looking vessel tied up at the end of it. Diesel exhaust burbled into the water from a hole in the ship’s side and swirled amongst the creosoted pilings, fouling the air around the docks with the acrid odor of a railroad yard on a hot summer day, a sneering insult to the fresh Pacific air blown in by the afternoon trade-winds. There she was, not the cute little tugboat I had envisioned back at Great Lakes, but an enormous rusting relic of the Second World War, looking more than a little battered after six long hard months at sea. Several of the crewmembers were chipping and scraping at streaking orange scabs of rust, others worked on rigging, fire pumps and so on. Two pot-bellied chiefs in khakis and tee shirts sat on the gunwales, elbows resting on a bollard, drinking coffee and shooting the breeze. It was a typically busy workday. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked up when I crossed the gangway, saluted the ensign and the quarterdeck watch, and then stepped onto the frying-pan deck of the 205-foot floating gulag known as a fleet tug or ATF (Auxiliary Tug Fleet). It was the first time I had ever set foot on anything bigger than a small boat. “Squirrel,” the seasoned salts must have thought to themselves. The Quapaw was a hard working ship. Noisy, stinking and full of activity, it was half diesel locomotive and half men's locker room with a soup kitchen in between. The crew of about 70, hailed from every stripe of the socio-economic spectrum, all bound together for the purposes of Service Squadron Five or SERVRON 5. There were three departments: Deck, we called them "Deck Apes," the Engineering Department--they were "snipes" or “bilge rats” and Operations, who were referred to as "Bridge Pussys." That's what I was. There were a half-dozen officers who were also called pussys, and pricks. A handful of Filipinos served as the officer’s stewards (positions held in the pre-civil rights era by Blacks). Sometimes, scuttlebutt had it, that the stewards laced the officers breakfast with unspeakable ingredients and slathered sandwiches with suspicious looking mayonnaise. The deck crew were the ones who did the hard work, they worked the fire pumps, the boats, the seaplane boom and all of the deck gear and rigging during the rescue and salvage operations. We all had to be familiar with those things so as to be able to pitch in when necessary, but it was the deck apes who were the experts. The head of the deck department was a leathery old Chief Warrant officer called Bos’n Beaver, Ira Beaver. An imperious martinet, Mr. Beaver worked his men like an antebellum slave driver on his very own floating plantation. The cooks and Gunners mates were also members of the deck department. Below decks the “Snipes” toiled day and night in the insufferable heat generated by the “Quapaw’s” four main engines. The Engineering Department sustained most shipboard injuries, usually during rough weather when the overworked locomotive engines broke down and took their revenge on the human flesh pressed to performing dangerous repairs on the hot oily machinery. Blood and black grease routinely flowed together in the sweltering environs of the engine room. The electricians and the damage control crew were included in the engineering department. The Operations Department consisted of the quartermasters, signalmen, radar men, radiomen, yeomen, storekeepers, and ETs, basically anyone who worked on the bridge or didn’t have to lift heavy things or get dirty, hence the moniker pussy. Many of the crew (the lifers mostly) enjoyed the regimented life--found it comforting and dependable. They liked the security of knowing that there was always a bed and a meal waiting for them, unlike the uncertainties of civilian life. But most draftee sailors like myself found shipboard life to be dehumanizing and claustrophobic, like living in a zoo. No, it was more like a circus, but we were the animals mind you, not the performers. At night we slept in cages and during the day we donned our monkey suits whenever they let us out to play. Situated directly beneath the exposed steel deck of the fantail, the crew’s quarters were cramped and hot; the temperamental AC rarely functioned. The pungent odor of diesel oil permeated the ship below decks. Above decks it was hard to escape the exhaust fumes of the four main engines. Shipboard life provided security and the essentials all right--if all you needed were endless work, instant potatoes, Spartan bunks stacked three-high, and the eternal company of males. Three years down the road when I finally left the Navy, one of my great reliefs was to never have to look at another naked man in the morning, and to never again be obliged to call another man sir. Yes Sir. No Sir. Aye aye Sir. By your leave Sir? As in civilian life it is used to reinforce class distinctions. In the civilian world its use has been reversed in most places outside of the southern states. A police officer today will say, “Sir, step out of your car,” when he really wants to say “Nigger.” Aboard ship, whenever the captain approached, someone would announce his presence by saying “Attention on deck.” All those present would pop-to until put “at ease” by the skipper. An exception to the rule was on the bridge, where “Captain’s on the Bridge” sufficed. On a ship the captain is God. The rest of the officers we had to solute whenever we encountered them, which was the reason we were required to always wear a hat—not to protect our heads so much as to provide the symbolic gesture of tipping the hat to our superiors. The thought of spending the next three years and four months aboard such a noisy foul smelling old tub, surrounded day in and day out by a bunch of knuckleheads, jack offs, spoiled brats, pricks and assholes was a depressing thought indeed. If I’d had any idea a year earlier of what I was getting myself into I would have done anything to have avoided it. Yet despite my bitterness and resentment I developed many friendships among the crew, got along fairly well with the officers and learned to do my job with skill, but I was just doing my time, and that’s the way it would be to the bitter end. April 21,1967 Dear Christine, I have only a few minutes to write before we get underway. We're moving to a different dock up the harbor a ways, it will be closer to everything so we won't have to walk a couple of miles to go anywhere. I’ve got the duty today, but the whole weekend off. That will be nice. I think I'll go down to the beach and get a tan. It’s not so crowded this time of the year since the tourists haven't arrived yet. I guess in the summer one can barely find standing room on the beach. Remember last summer when we used to go to the river. Some day we will do things like that again. Lt. Dolan, my Division officer came back from leave today. I met him this morning and he seems like a pretty nice guy. Later, We’re in Pearl Harbor now. Across the harbor I can see the Arizona Memorial. That must have been terrible when this place was being bombed in '41. There must have been many guys who never got to see their lovers and wives again. I wonder if those women still think about them much. Each one of them had something to live for. It sure is sad, isn't it? Think how lucky we are to have each other and really not have to worry about ever losing each other. Sometimes I feel that we should be thankful that, even if we are separated for a while, we still have our whole life together to live the way we want. That is why so many men have given their lives, so that those after them may take their place in a world they helped to make better. I am thankful that I have you. I have never taken you for granted, because I know what it is like to be without you. I can remember times, once for example, when I had the mumps, and you and Larry came out to visit me. I wanted so much for you only to be there with me, so that we could talk and I could tell you that I loved you. When you left, I knew that Larry was taking my girl. I just lay there in bed for a long time thinking and wondering what it would be like to have you for my own. Did I ever tell you of the time Larry and I were sitting down at McKlusky's in his car, talking 'til the wee hours of the morning? He kept asking me if there was a girl that I really loved. I told him yes, but that I wouldn't tell him who. I could tell that he knew for sure. We both knew that he knew. It was so obvious that I couldn't keep from laughing. Then he laughed, I guess because there was nothing else to do. I'm listening to music from "Dr. Zchivago." I don't know the words but it reminds me of you. Whenever I see a movie with people who fall in love in it, I get awfully lonely for you. That's what it was like at that movie. I wanted to be near you so badly. I cherish every moment that we are together and pray that the time for us again will be just around the corner. This time we have a long wait, perhaps a year. Each time my watch clicks over another day is like a battle we have won in our war for togetherness. Each month is another step towards our goal. It takes time to bring time, our time, which will be always. If I were granted one wish to be fulfilled, it would be that the time we are apart should pass in a flash and the time together, linger on and on. I'm living for the day we become husband and wife. I need you Christine. Goodnight Honey. I love you, Charles My first few weeks aboard the Quapaw were as confusing as one might expect: a new job, new home, new friends, a totally new environment and a strenuous routine that would take some getting used to--the workaday world of a navy fleet tug. We performed a variety of tasks: everything from towing targets for other ships to shoot at, to rescuing vessels in distress and fighting fires. There were also endless drills. We weren't a combat vessel but we did have a 3 inch 50 calibre (naval gun with a barrel 150 inches long and a three inch bore). Mounted on the deck below and forward of the bridge, it was pointed straight ahead and proudly elevated, like every other gun in the U.S. Navy, to the angle of an erect penis. Though not a large gun, it was reputed to be one of the loudest in the fleet. The deafening blast jarred the entire ship, and had about the same effect on the electronic gear as would a good pounding with a sledgehammer. After several rounds of target practice we ETs routinely spent the next several days repairing the damage to the electronics. The first day we went out for target practice was also the day I got my first ass-chewing. Dazzled and a bit disoriented by all of the new and unfamiliar goings on, I found myself alone on the flying bridge during a battle drill, watching the gun crew prepare to fire the big 3” 50. In all the excitement and confusion I mistook my battle station for my sea-detail station, which was to be a lookout. The gun crew wore metal helmets, flak jackets and ear protectors. It was all very exciting. The Gun Captain shouted commands and the gunners went into action and I was lucky enough to have the best view of the activities all by myself, around fifteen feet from the muzzle of a Three-inch fifty-calibre naval canon. “Ready...Aim...Fire!” I knew it would be loud, so I clasped my hands tightly over my ears, stepped back and crouched below the canvas shroud attached to the railing. Several seconds went by and the gun still hadn’t fired so I figured it was a misfire and looked over the railing to see what the hold-up was. At that particular moment I was not fully aware of the function of the firing sequence. (My mind must have wandered off during the “ready aim fire” lecture in boot camp. One thing I did remember though was that one sixteen inch shell, the largest in the Navy’s arsenal, was the same weight and price as a new Cadillac--not a useful thing to know aboard the “Quapaw,” at that particular moment). READY commanded the pointer to turn the hand-wheel that moved the barrel along the vertical axis to align the vertical gun-sight crosshair with the target. AIM was the command to the aimer to do the same through the horizontal crosshair. FIRE then being the signal to the triggerman to pull the trigger, the instant both crosshairs intersected on the target. It can be a tedious process, and a strenuous one if the ship is pitching and rolling, as it was on that particular that day. A well trained gun-crew could take several seconds to lock onto the target, which, for us, on that day was a big square sail set sideways on a floating sled being towed by another vessel about a thousand yards off the port side. I leaned over the handrail for a closer look at the two gunners furiously turning the hand-wheels one way then the other, completely oblivious to what was going to happen at that moment the two crosshairs lined-up squarely on the bull’s-eye. Then it happened. KABBOOM!!! A thunderous ball of fire as big as, say, a Cadillac, exploded from the end of the muzzle. The shockwave hit me like a knockout punch from Muhammad Ali. As I had not yet become useful in operational situations, no one had much noticed my absence until they saw me stumbling about the bridge, half deaf, disheveled, and bumping into things. A faint voice called to me from the far end of a long tunnel. “Ras,” then more impatiently, “Ras, where have you been?” “Uh, oh I just came down from the flying bridge.” “What! What in the hell were you doing up there during a shooting drill? You trying to get yourself killed? Your battle station is the radio shack. Now get down there on the double.” My ears are ringing to this day. There were three of us ETs, with plenty of work to keep us busy. The two other ETs were my mentors, and knowing that one day I would be in their place I studied everything I could to learn quickly as I could, often making a nuisance of myself by asking too many questions. J.R. Parker was the leader. He was a few years older than I, and had some college under his belt. I had a lot of respect for Parker, believing that he was a genius in his ability to solve problems. He seemed to know and understand every piece of equipment; well he did actually after serving two years aboard the Quapaw. It becomes second nature when you live and work with the gear every single day. Parker was an affable laid back Texan with a keen sense of humor--and did he ever love to steam, meaning bar-drinking and carousing, which made him quite useless until mid-afternoon. We often had to drag his besotted butt up to the head and toss him into a cold shower to sober him up--no sleeping-in on the Quapaw unless you were literally at death’s door. A half pack of cigarettes and many cups of rank black coffee later and Parker was ready to go to work. He always finished in time for liberty call, whether the work was done or not, leaving yours truly to take up the slack. As I tried to learn from him, he would often mumble through a cloud of cigarette smoke and brush away my questions like so many annoying flies. Parker was like my father had been when I was a boy--I just figured he thought it was nothing I needed to know or that I was too stupid to understand. I was dead wrong about both Parker and my father. I began to spend a lot of time pouring over the manuals--figuring I'd better learn the stuff for the day Parker went home and it would be just Chapman and me. That's not the way things would turn out however. Chapman, the other ET, was a slightly pudgy little guy with a round baby-face. Also from the South, he had been aboard a couple of years. Chapman had a peach fuzz beard and a high-pitched voice, but there was something elderly about him, like he was compensating for his boyish appearance by carrying himself like an old man. He was only twenty-three and he giggled like a girl, but he smoked a pipe and hiked up his trousers exactly like my Grandpa. Unlike Parker, Chapman seemed to enjoy teaching me what he knew: part of his desire to project paternalism and appear older than he looked, I suppose. There was a lot to learn. We had transmitters and receivers of every frequency range, sonar, radar, Loran (for navigation) several cryptographic sets, teletypewriters, converters, etc, and an instrument called The IFF system. The IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) was a ridiculously complicated piece of equipment. Its purpose was to enable us to identify ourselves electronically when we were "interrogated" by another US warship or aircraft. It was essential for obvious reasons that it function properly. The main unit sat in the charthouse just aft of the bridge next to the Loran. Parker was always fiddling with it, and like with everything else he had a magic touch with the IFF. It was an eternal mystery to me how it functioned. A small remote unit was mounted to the bulkhead in front of the helm where the captain and the rest of the bridge crew could keep an eye on it. When we were interrogated, a series of colored lights blinked in sequence across the face of the remote. The first light indicated an interrogation, the second a reply by us. The third light was an acknowledgment of our reply. A final light meant everything was on the up and up and the IFF went back into standby mode. If all the lights blinked in the proper sequence everyone was happy and confident that we wouldn't be mistaken for an enemy vessel and blown out of the water. When the system failed to operate normally it was always Parker who managed somehow to tweak the recalcitrant IFF back into submission. "What're you doin', what's that?" I'd ask trying to follow Parker's slight-of-hand as he moved to block my view with a cloud of cigarette smoke and shifty shoulders. Then he'd slam the unit shut and flip a couple of switches. "That should do it." "But what did you do Parker," I'd ask again as he headed down the ladder to check out something in the radio shack? "I'll go over it with you later," he said, but he never did. Exactly what his "magic touch" was, I would one day come to realize one night a few harrowing miles off the coast of North Vietnam. My first long hall on the “Mighty Q” was a week-long trip to the Marshall Islands with a fuel barge in tow. The barge contained several thousand gallons of diesel fuel, the life-blood of a tiny outpost on a little island in the Eniwetok atoll. It was one of 40 surviving islets in the 25-mile wide atoll in the Marshalls that narrowly missed total obliteration by the numerous nuclear bombs the United States of America started detonating there in the year 1952. Eniwetok was the test site for the most horrific and destructive devices ever created by human beings. Atomic and Hydrogen bombs of every sort were exploded in that god-forsaken place--on the ground, high in the sky suspended from balloons, and hundreds of feet under the sea. Some were dropped from airplanes, others launched on high-flying rockets. They were given innocuous names like "Rose," "Umbrella," and "Ivy." Some of them were named after American Indian tribes, as if they hadn't been insulted enough by the white man already. Eniwetok and its sister atoll, Bikini became the unwilling nurseries of the Thermonuclear age, and their inhabitants its first victims. July 1947: The Marshal Islands and the rest of Micronesia become a United Nations Strategic Trust Territory administered by the United States of America. Under the trusteeship, the U.S. is obligated to "protect the inhabitants against the loss of their lands and resources." In December of that very same year Eniwetok Atoll was designated for use as a test site for the U.S. nuclear weapons program and all of its native inhabitants were transported a "safe" distance to the Island of Ujelang. Throughout the next decade Eniwetok was blasted 43 times with atomic and hydrogen bombs--nearby Bikini, got 23 bombs. The first and largest hydrogen bomb detonated on Eniwetok was code-named "Ivy Mike", a 10.4-megaton monstrosity SEVEN HUNDRED! times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb. In the predawn hours of the first day of November 1952, a three-and-one-half-mile-wide fireball lit up the sky like an exploding sun, awakening in sudden and absolute terror, Eniwetok’s former folk, sleeping peacefully on tiny Ujelang a hundred an seventy miles south. The bomb vaporized the coral island it had been sitting on and left in its place a mile-wide crater two hundred feet deep. After the bomb burned up several cubic miles of atmosphere, the vaporized coral, fishes, birds, crabs, squids, whales, and who knows what other creatures, were sucked up into the vacuum created in the sky by the 50 million degree fireball. A shockingly white mushroom cloud quickly grew to sixty miles in diameter, and rose up to the roof of heaven, four times the height of Mt. Everest. In the cold upper reaches of the atmosphere, radioactive calcium "snowflakes" condensed from the vaporous cloud and then slowly drifted back down to earth. The wind blew south that day, towards Ujelang. By late afternoon the naked brown youngsters on Ujelang Island laughed and played in the fluffy "snow" that turned their new island home into a ghoulish version of a snow-globe turned upside-down. By evening the children were itching and vomiting, and crying pink colored tears from bloodshot eyes. By adolescence they were riddled with cancers. In February 1995, Marshal Islands officials stated before President Clinton's Committee on Human Radiation Experiments that fallout had exposed many more than the four Atolls acknowledged by the U.S. government, and that islanders were purposely resettled on contaminated islands so that American scientists could study the long-term effects of radiation on human beings. "Trust" Territory, indeed. In August 1996 The Marshal Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal projected that by 2001 it will have $100 million in personal claims. Also pending before the Tribunal are land claims for Bikini, Eniwetok, and several other northern islands, claims which are limited by the Tribunal's claim fund to $45 million. Eniwetok and Bikini suffered, between the two of them, the total equivalent of SEVEN THOUSAND HIROSHIMAS! Fifteen years later we were steaming toward the mile wide crater left behind by "Ivy Mike." I didn't know what the hell to expect. I was up on the flying bridge standing lookout watch with another seaman when we caught our first glimpse of the radio tower on Eniwetok. Sighted through powerful binoculars it first appeared as a faint whisker protruding from the curving cheek of the South Pacific Ocean. How we spotted it I do not know, but I do know why. If anyone spotted something before the lookout did, the lookout was obliged to stand an additional four-hour watch. Under that kind of pressure we lookouts developed exceedingly keen eyesight. If you ever get lost at sea you might just pray that a U.S. Navy ship passes by. Some time later we dropped anchor on the bottom of the placid man-made lagoon. I understood then why this place was chosen for "Operation Crossroads," as there could not be a more remote and desolate place on the entire planet. The only dwellings on the small island, that rose only six or so feet above sea level, were a few rusting Quonset huts and several sun-bleached wooden shacks. A small lonely tribe of bearded American technicians waited on the dock for our Captain's gig to pull up. No place for liberty, Eniwetok was strictly business. Maybe they offered the Captain a glass of whiskey or a cold beer; they must have at least had some booze. Resting two hundred feet below, the ship's anchor was plainly visible through the magnifying lens of the crystalline water, oddly appearing as though it were a miniature anchor that could easily be picked up with one hand. Surprisingly, a myriad of fishes populated the seemingly two-dimensional pool but it was hard to tell whether it was a minnow on the surface or leviathan near the bottom because of the indeterminate depth at which they swam. But there were sure plenty of them and so there appeared to be some hope, after all, for a world threatened by nuclear madness, at least for the innocent wild creatures, because where those fishes swam on that day had, just fifteen years earlier, been ground zero of the grotesque radioactive inferno code named "Ivy Mike." We didn’t feel much like eating any of those fish though. That evening we weighed the diminutive Danforth anchor and got underway again with an empty barge in tow. One of the island residents lingered at the end of the sun-bleached pier for an envious goodbye as we headed out to the open ocean. He yelled through cupped hands that it was too bad we weren't spending the night--"The glowing fish put on quite a light show you know." Then he turned around and sauntered back to what he was doing before we had arrived--whatever the hell that was and the Quapaw began the long and tedious return-trip back to Pearl Harbor--seventy men in a big gray boat dragging an empty tin can across the great bewildering expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Some mail had been forwarded to Eniwetok. May 31, 1967 My Dear Christine, I thought that today I wouldn't hear from you, but then as I unfolded the blankets at the foot of my bed, I saw that someone had left me a letter from you there. I was sure happy. It was the one with the poems. They are all so true and perfect. I don't know which I like the best. I will keep them and read them often. "Love" I think comes first. I love you because you are everything that is love, happiness, warmth, and with you I live with these things. It will be that way forever, even down those "ways of death." What Adelaide Love said in "Walk Slowly," I will never forget---"Walk slowly, my dear and often look behind you, and pause to hear if someone calls your name." God, that is beautiful! And "You and I." Yes we ought to be together now. This is the time we should be sharing and growing together. The time goes quickly, but the pain and loneliness linger. Thank you for these poems. Thank the others for writing them. You are a wonderful lover. The poem of the unborn son reminds me of that little baby (maybe a girl) that is inside you, waiting for us to let him out to join us. What a nice place to be. That is my favorite place. I can't wait until the next time I go there again. Do you like me to come visiting--need I ask? Oh Christine, I love and miss you more than anything. I want to look at you again and feel that love that is like fire. You are so beautiful that I could stand to look at you forever. Goodnight Love Yours always Charles. Chapter Seven Back at Pearl we resumed our regular work schedule, if it could be called that, as we were always on call for emergencies that invariably occurred at the most disagreeable hours. One morning shortly after midnight a distress signal was sent out by an aging "Liberty Ship." It had lost power in a storm up north of Oahu in that dangerous region where the gigantic waves are born that draw the best surfers in the world to the island's North Shore. The old freighter's, turn-of-the-century steam engine had conked out, broken down like an old mariner's worn out heart. We got the call. "Liberty and "Victory" ships were 10,750 ton cargo ships that were built at a frantic rate during World War II. From 1940 to 1945, 2,751 of the 455-foot ships slid down the ways at ports like Richmond, California, Vancouver, Washington and Bath, Maine. The all-time shipbuilding speed record was set in Richmond, at yard No.1, when they finished the S.S. Robert F. Peary Victory on November 12, 1942. It took (start to finish) 4 days, 15 hours, and 30 minutes! Christ O Mighty, no wonder America won that war. The Liberty, and the ten foot longer, Victory ships weren't really expected to survive the war--the idea being to build them faster than the "Krauts" and "Japs" could sink them, so they were made on the cheap to conserve materials. But many lived far beyond their short life expectancy. In the first year of the twenty-first century there are at least four of the hale vessels afloat today. One of the survivors is the S.S. Red Oak Victory, which is back at its birthplace in Richmond California. There, volunteers at the Richmond Museum of History lovingly maintain it. It is considered a national monument, as is the S.S. Lane Victory, which is tied up at berth 94 in San Pedro, California. The S.S. Jeremiah T. O'Brien Liberty was restored and fit to steam all the way to England from San Francisco in 1994 for the 50th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy. Emotions ran high as veteran WW II sailors once again took turns at the helm and the lookout. The S.S. John W. Brown Liberty is being nursed back to life in Baltimore, thanks to $5 million in cash, $7 million in donated equipment and going on a million hours of volunteered labor. Old sailors love those ships. Most of the others are gone, worked to death decades ago by civilian owners like Aristotle Onassis, who bought them for nothing at the end of the war, and finally like tired old work-horses gone to the glue factory, they were sold, priced by their dead weight in steel, and ignominiously succumbed to the scrapper's torch. By daybreak the deck crew was shooting a bolo over to the stricken “Choktaw Liberty”. They strung the bolo through a bollard and shot it back to us. To the thin bolo line a larger line was tied. Progressively larger lines were thus pulled up through their bollard and back down to us, around a capstan and back up to them again until eventually a two and a half inch diameter nylon hawser was tied through the eye of our two and a quarter inch steel towline. They would secure our towline and that would be that. Back to port we go with the Liberty Ship in tow. On a perfect day it is an arduous task. It was staggeringly difficult to do the job in a howling storm with seventy-foot waves. It took three days and three nights of crushing labor--no sleep, no food, no rest. All we had to keep us going was a steady infusion of adrenaline. Those of us in the dry spaces of the bridge or in the engine room had cigarettes. It is almost impossible to construct in ones imagination the terrifying picture of two ships teeter-tottering on seventy-foot breaking waves, pitching and rolling in the raging wind, while men scrambled about the flooded decks, hauling heavy wet lines off the capstan, giving them slack, taking up slack, giving it back, lines pulling taut and parting like gunshots, and then starting the process all over again, and again, and again. A nylon line stretches two and a half time before it snaps. A wet nylon hawser, when it parts, leaves a steaming ghost of itself behind, like smoke after a lightning bolt and the bullwhip crack is as loud as a thunderclap as the frayed end of the line breaks the sound barrier. It can slice a man in half before he has a chance to blink. Three turns of line are taken around the smooth spool-shaped capstan. The strain on the load-bearing end squeezes the three turns together and it is the friction between the turns that gives the capstan its tremendous grip, which increases with the amount of load. As the loose end pays out, it is taken off by deck hands and faked out on the deck to keep it from tangling. Keeping sufficient tension on the pay out line is of utmost importance. Pulling it off too hard is an unnecessary waste of energy, but taken off too loosely or, God forbid, dropping the line can have fatal consequences. One flinch and the load takes it all, including any sailor whose foot may have inadvertently stepped into a deadly loop; a sailor never steps into a loop even if it’s a length of rope on dry land--bad luck. Green water washed over the gunwales as the "Deck Apes" barked at each other through the buckshot spray and wrestled with the heavy wet lines. Like rampant gorillas they clambered amongst the vines. "Hang onto that Goddamned line Bubbles!" "Pull!" "Ease up now!" "Clear the deck!" "KAPOW!" Another parted line. Start the whole damn thing over. I was at the radar shouting ranges to the captain who yelled commands from the wing of the bridge. "One hundred fifty feet sir!" "One twenty sir!" The captain, "right hard rudder, all back one third." Helmsman, "right hard rudder, all back one third, aye aye sir. Engine room answers all back one third sir." The captain, "very well." "One hundred feet sir!" "Left full rudder all ahead one third." "Left full rudder all ahead one third, aye aye sir. Engine room answers all ahead one third sir." "Very well." "Sir, one seventy five!" The ranges were rough guesses. The big white blip of the “Chocktaw Liberty” was nudging the dot, which was us, at the center of our radar screen. Half the time the screen was totally white. That was because the radar waves were bouncing straight back from the sheer wall of water that had suddenly risen like a liquid mountain range. Then a second later there was nothing at all on the screen except for the slowly revolving pale green line; a pendulum-like device called a clinometer, which was mounted above the helm to measure the degree of roll, hit seventy degrees as the “Choctaw Liberty” fell into the valley below and we sat, healed over, atop of the mountain, pointing the radar blindly up into the sky. Still the old man was yelling. "Range Goddamnit?" Captain Tschida rarely swore. It was on the second day I believe, though I'm not sure, but I am certain about one thing--It was absolutely pitch black when we lost all power. I must have ventured into the engine room maybe three times. I had no reason to go there and no desire. It was hotter than hell, noisy as hell, and stunk like hell. The snipes didn't get enough sun. They were all pasty white with greasy hair. They also sported ninety-five percent of the ship's pimples. Of the three crews sleeping quarters, theirs smelled the worst. But, bless those hardworking boys; they kept the four American Locomotive engines chugging away for months on end. Each engine drove a generator that made electricity that powered the huge DC drive motor that turned the twelve inch diameter shaft that ran through a water tight seal at the stern and turned the twelve foot diameter propeller at up to 120 revolutions per minute at flank speed. The generators also powered the hydraulic steering motors, the winches, the capstans, the radios, the radar, the sonar, the deck lights, and the 24 inch search light that shined on the Liberty ship that threatened at that moment to crash down on us from atop a immense pile of ocean, when suddenly the whole works came to a dead stop. Inside the disabled Quapaw, emergency battery lanterns switched-on automatically bathing the compartments and passageways in dim but reassuring light. Outside, the decks were engulfed in wind and water and darkness and pandemonium. By instinct shaped from countless drills each of us assumed our emergency stations. We were all scared shitless. I put on the weak but efficient sound-powered-phone headset to talk to Smith the Quartermaster who had scrambled down to his emergency station in the after-steering compartment (the steering motor room right above the rudder) which was where the power should go first when it came back on. My job was to relay steering orders from the bridge. I could hear lots of noise over the sound-powered-phone but Smitty wasn't talking to me. "Captain I think Smiths in trouble down there. I can't raise him." The captain told me to go see what the problem was so I handed the sound-powered-phone to someone else and headed full-speed down to after-steering. As soon as I opened the door I could see what the problem was. The claustrophobic after-steering room was stiflingly hot and reeked of rancid hydraulic oil and filthy bilge water. Smith was flailing about the slippery machinery in this sloshing soup. Whenever he tried to speak into the phone he threw up into the mouthpiece. I grabbed it from him, shook out the puke, put on the headset and then promptly puked right into the mouthpiece myself. I was shaking the puke out a second time when the main engines suddenly rumbled back to life. Then the hydraulic steering motors groaned back to life and, to my immense relief, the rudder started to move. They had power on the bridge! Smith and I scrambled back up to the pilot house. The big searchlight was again aimed at the Liberty ship, which to everyone's great relief had drifted further away instead of toward us, but we really didn't have time to dwell on the other possibility. "Right full rudder all ahead two thirds." "Right full rudder all ahead two thirds, aye aye sir. Engine room answers all ahead two thirds sir." ""Very well." "Sir, one hundred yards." On the third day we got that “god-damned-son-of-a-bitchin” towline secured to the Liberty ship and then made all preparations for getting underway and finally resumed our regular underway watches as we steadied up on a course for Pearl Harbor at full speed ahead. There was a little write-up about it in the local newspaper. That's where I got the seventy-foot wave figure--from the “Honolulu Star Bulletin.” Where they got the number is anyone's guess. By my own estimate the waves were at least a hundred feet high--maybe more. Sure as hell looked like it to me. Chapter Eight Most of our rescues were undramatic. A number of times we had to dislodge vessels that had run up on the reef after trying to take a short–cut into Pearl Harbor. Once it was a nuclear sub. That was pretty exciting and harrowing, what with laying all the beach-gear anchors to pull against with the ship’s powerful towing winch. But our day to day routine got to be awfully tiresome. Towing targets for other ships to shoot at and moving heavy floating objects from one place to another was not the thrilling life at sea that one imagines the life of a sailor to be. Much of the time we were moored at the entrance to Pearl Harbor waiting at the “Alpha“ docks for an emergency call. The engines idled 24 hours a day and the crew was kept busy with the endless chores of maintenance and upkeep. An old fleet tug is like a gigantic overworked animal with an ailing body and an insatiable appetite. The salt of the sea ate at the ship’s skin like a relentless cancer. Her engines had survived the ravages of time only by the constant care of men tending to her failing parts. After a few weeks of hard work but never quite enough time left in the day for a thorough grooming, her true age began to show and she started looking like the old World War II vet she actually was. The Quapaw was launched in Alameda, California on May 15 1943 and began her commission on May 6 1944. She spent most of the war pulling landing craft from the beaches in the Pacific Island campaigns. The “Mighty Q” had been attacked at least once by kamikazes and more than twenty years later still bore a few small battle scars from that war. The ship was half again the age of most of the crew and often looked much older than that, but after a few weeks of cosmetic upkeep she could be made presentable again. Still the old girl required far more attention than we cared to give her and so, at every opportunity that duty and finances could afford, we donned the civilian clothes we each had stored in on-base lockers and hit the beach for a day of relief from the humdrum life of a fleet-tug sailor. On one such day I got a phone call at the quarterdeck from an old steamin' buddy I knew from ET school. Joe, a dead ringer for Al Pacino, was in port for a few days on a destroyer out of San Diego. We hit the beach together in our civvies, and at days end found ourselves sitting on the shore path at Waikiki Beach just outside the bamboo fence of Royal Hawaiian hotel, drinking a jug of “Paisano,” the most expensive wine we could celebrate with on a lowly seaman's pay. As the sun set on Oahu that evening, we enjoyed the same view as the honeymooners and other tourists dining in the garden of the fancy pink hotel. They couldn't see us and we couldn't see them as Joe and I shared stories about our respective ships, our mutual distaste for Navy life, and our girls. Joe had married a "surfer chick" shortly before he had left San Diego a week earlier for a six-month Westpac (West Pacific) cruise. I knew exactly how he felt. The first couple weeks are tough ones and, as the alcohol began to fire-up his burning resentment of military life, Joe started to sound like maybe he might be thinking about going AWOL. It was common practice on the beach where there are so many reminders of the freedom left behind and it was the buddy's courtesy to cheer his mate up at times like these and try to talk some sense into him. "You'll see Joe, six months will pass like just that—-‘snap of the fingers.’ Don't do anything stupid man. Here have some more wine." Who was I kidding? Joe had been spending a lot of time on the beach in California, surfing and smoking pot. I was surprised at how long his hair was, on a destroyer no less. And he had adopted a whole new California lingo. Every other sentence contained a "wow" or "far out." The guy was having a hard time adjusting to navy life. I don't know how he worked it out because I never saw him again after that night. As we sat there on the edge of the boardwalk, someone walked by and threw a firecracker into the hotel garden. We didn’t pay much attention to it. Just thought it was some troublemaker. We poured another glass of wine and had gotten back to the "far out" and "wow" when two huge Hawaiians strolled down the path and stopped right behind us. "What's goin' on," they asked, friendly-like? It was unusual for Hawaiians to speak to sailors, and it was obvious that's what we were. Most natives viewed us with even greater contempt than they did the mainland tourists. The two Hawaiians wore white slacks and Don Ho shirts. "Just enjoying the sunset, care for a glass of wine?" Peace Bro'. They showed us their badges, said the hotel had complained that we were creating a disturbance. We told them about the firecracker guy, but they didn't buy it for one second and the next thing we knew was we were on our way downtown to the Honolulu police station looking out the rear windows of a police cruiser at the tourists strolling along the sidewalks of Waikiki. There we were fingerprinted and had our mug shots taken. Then the cops filed a lengthy report on the "incident." The whole time, a cell-full of shit-faced drunk marines screamed obscenities at us two "fucking squids!" Looked like they had been in brawl or something; most of them were bloodied and generally messed up, and all of them had their hands cuffed behind their backs. When the cops finished booking Joe and me, they unlocked the door of the cell with the marines in it and gleefully shoved us inside. "Here's some sailors for you jarheads to play with". Then all precinct pigs (what police officers were called back in the Sixties) crowded around to watch and placed bets on the human cockfight that was about to take place. The half dozen or so marines rushed us as soon as the door banged shut and immediately started to head butting, kicking, and ramming us against the bars. At first we just tried shoving them away, which only pissed them off more. Before long, Joe and I started throwing serious punches, but the marines kept coming at us so we kept hammering at them, harder and harder and harder. Punching a man’s head is a lot like slugging a block of wood with your bare hand. A numb-drunk marine's close-cropped skull was more like a tree trunk tightly wrapped in sandpaper. It was no fun for anybody but those asshole cops; noses got bloodied, lips split open, knuckles were torn and wrists were sprained. A couple marines backed out of the fray while Joe and I, pushed up against the wall, yelled our heads off at the cops to get us the fuck out of there. This went on for several minutes, but who was counting when you’re getting your ass kicked by a bunch of jarheads? At last a paddy wagon backed up to the loading dock and then one-by-one the cops let the marines out, removed their handcuffs, and shoved them cussing into the back of the paddy wagon. The marines screamed at us, "Were gonna kill you mother fucking squid cocksuckers!" And they sure as hell meant it too. Joe and I were the last ones to be let out. "Okay, you're next." It was starting to look like a real shitty end of a day already gone south for us fucking squids. We pleaded with those cops, "Please officer, please, please, you put us in there and we’re dead meat!" I would rather have fought it out with the pigs than climbed into the back of that paddy wagon with those crazy jarheads. They surely would have killed us, just like they said. One of the cops slammed shut the delivery doors of the paddy wagon and smirked as he turned back around, "Naw, we wouldn't do that to you guys." Some of the details are little hazy, but that last remark is a verbatim quote that echoes today in my ears exactly as it was spoken those many years ago. The shore patrol took Joe and me away separately, dropping me off at the marine brig where I spent the night confined in a little wooden cubicle no larger than a "porta-potty." So that I wouldn’t be tempted to hang myself, my belt and shoe laces were taken away. With barely standing room I gazed out through the tiny window toward Pearl Harbor. Most of the night I crouched on the floor licking my wounds and trying to fall asleep. In the morning someone from my ship came to get me and by the time we got back to the Quapaw in Pearl I’d rehashed the whole ordeal and then chalked it up as just another zany night on the town. Joe's ship was scheduled to depart that morning and I hoped he made it back because “Missing Ships Movement” is a serious offense in the Navy and he was much too edgy to be getting into that kind of trouble. Not long after that night I was waiting at the city bus stop just outside the main gate at Pearl, when I noticed four marines waiting for the same bus. I caught one of them eyeballing me. Could have been one or two of the same guys; it was hard to tell. They got on the bus first and sat two in front of each other. I sat more toward the rear on the opposite side, being careful to not make eye contact as I walked down the aisle. As the bus rolled towards Honolulu, I glanced in their direction and noticed that that same marine was giving me the eyeball again. Then he leaned forward and said something to the two guys sitting in front. They looked back in my direction and then mumbled something to each other. Yup,I knew it. Why didn't I just wait for the next bus? Sure enough, one of them, the little one, he gets up and he makes his way back to me. I’m looking out the window at the passing scenery, pretending to be lost in thought. "Scuse me, don’t I know you," he asks? "Don't think so. What state you from?” I say, trying to divert him back to the mainland? Someplace like, "Iowa," he says. "Guess not," I say, and then turn to look out the window again. He struts back up the aisle to his seat. Those marines were already pretty messed up when Joe and I had our run-in with them, so it was difficult to say what they looked like normally, but I thought the short one looked familiar and he obviously recognized me from somewhere. I thought it prudent to get off at the next stop--screw this. I stood up and headed nonchalantly toward the front of the bus. The marines moved like they were getting off too. Well I knew it wasn't their stop so I sat back down like I was only changing seats. So did they, now sitting directly across from me. I resumed my sightseeing pose, trying to appear relaxed and unconcerned but at the same time bracing for another fight. I decided to wait the marines out, doubting that they would jump me on a city bus in front of witnesses. Finally the bus pulled up to their stop. While the four marines filed off, one of them turned and yelled at me over the heads of the startled passengers, "Hey Squid! Fuck you asshole!" But I didn't even look up; I knew it was coming. It was them all right and they still wanted to kill me. Chapter Nine Eight long months had passed and I was settled into shipboard life like a seasoned sailor. It was winter in Hawaii, noticeable only by the frequent rainsqualls and the influx of tourists escaping the mainland snow, and it was nearing time for my first West Pac cruise. For the six long arduous months at sea that lay ahead, the ship needed to be in top shape so we put her into dry-dock for a few weeks of general maintenance and engine repairs. While the work was being done, the crew transferred over to a barracks at nearby Hickam Field, which we were obliged to share with a small contingent of supremely pissed-off young black combat marines just back from a tour in Vietnam. They were recuperating at the front gates of Pearl Harbor standing guard duty, an unglamorous, thankless, boring job--some payment for the sacrifices they had made in “Nam.” They were friendly enough but pretty much kept to themselves at one end of the barracks. Every night however the brothers cranked up the volume on a brand new Japanese stereo system with twelve-inch woofers and played soul music right up until the moment of taps at twenty-two hundred hours. It was annoying to us sailors who had, in the confines of shipboard life, developed a certain amount of respect for each others personal space. A good percentage of our crew was black, so the irritation didn't seem to have any racial undercurrents to it--until one balmy night. It had been an otherwise quiet evening, the crew whiling away the last minutes of the day reading, playing cards and writing letters or polishing shoes until taps, when the lights go out and there is enforced silence about the decks. The jarheads had the record player going full tilt, as usual, when all the commotion started. "Get that little Muthu fuckin' jive-ass honkey!" I looked up just in time to see Chapman streaking through the barracks like a cat with its tail on fire. He burst through the back door and sprinted across the yard with the band of soul brothers right behind and closing in "muther-fuckering!" hot pursuit. By the time the rest of us had dropped what we were doing and ran out to break it up, the marines had pretty much beaten the crap out of pudgy little Chapman. Just in time too, the barracks master-at-arms, a large and much respected black man on our ship, quickly and efficiently took the terrified Chapman into custody and summoned the shore patrol. Out in the middle of the front yard the dwindling flames of the brothers’ outrage flickered and then died out. Just like that emblem of hate blazing in the dark nights of the deep South, a small makeshift cross of twisted coat hangers draped in toilet tissue and doused with gasoline burned itself out on the cool damp lawn. Chapman had nearly set himself on fire that night when he struck a match and the ugly little cross blew up in his face. That evening a crisis was narrowly averted by a calmer voice, but the shame of event was felt by us all as we went quietly and somberly to our bunks and the lights went out at last. The cross burner was arrested and promptly discharged from the Navy. Now the Quapaw’s entire Electronics Department for the coming West Pac consisted of Parker and me. There was much to be done in preparation for the six-month cruise. First there was a week of ORI--Operational Readiness Inspections, a challenging battery of test exercises conducted by a team of inspectors who would examine every aspect of our readiness. Mock battles were conducted to feel like the real thing, even to the point of creating hideous casualties with fake blood and guts spilling onto the decks. In all the confusion, we didn’t know if they were real casualties caused by the drill itself or simply very convincing simulations, which they were of course. We were instructed to ignore the screams and go about our own duties. It was the corpsman's job to tend the wounded. For Parker and me they "damaged" some electronics and then observed our repair efforts under battle conditions. It wasn't at all like the efficient Scottie on "Star Trek." "Give me fifteen minutes Cap'n. I'll 'ave 'er up 'n runnin." Several days were spent taking on stores. Tons of provisions had to be loaded hand to hand: boxes of tins of fruit and vegetables, cases of frozen beef steaks, pork chops, chickens, hams, fish for Fridays, Salisbury steaks, bacon, sausage, chipped beef for "shit on a shingle," eggs, big boxes of little boxes of cereal, five gallon containers of fresh milk--powdered milk and condensed when that ran out, mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, Louisiana hot sauce, sacks of flour and sugar and salt and pepper, fake maple syrup, rice, grits, instant potatoes, fresh potatoes, iceberg lettuce, cheese, bologna, liverwurst (horse cock), salami, hot dogs, hamburger patties, many boxes of bread and buns, dried soup, ice cream, imitation Cool Aid, as differentiated from “real” Koolaid, purple mostly (as I refused to call it grape). Also such items as soap and medicine, basically everything needed for several months at sea, including some stores for which we were required to pay hard-earned cash, such as candy bars (“geedunk’ was the navy term), soda and cigarettes. All departments checked and double-checked lists of essentials. Parker and I padded our inventory of spare parts and made sure everything was in peak condition, fine tuning even the test equipment. One of the last chores was taking on ordinance. The magazine lay just forward of amidships, all the way down to the bilges and ordinance of all kinds also had to stowed by hand, passed down a shaft into the magazine in a daylong work party at the ammo dump over at Ford Island. Nerve-wracking work it was, especially handling the long black hoses filled with nitro-glycerin; drop one of those babies and it was curtains. The smoking lamp was definitely out. Being careful to place the palm of the hand over the detonator on the bottom of the casing we gingerly passed over a hundred baseball-bat length 3" 50 shells down the magazine well. That was the most important thing—sure didn't want to bump the firing cap against a handhold or a hatch-dog or anything. There were also wooden boxes filled with concussion grenades and waterproof dynamite, bandoliers of 50 cal. rounds, 45 cal. ammo for pistols and Thompson sub-machine guns, M-14 rifle rounds, shotgun shells, plastique explosive, and Thermite bombs for destroying cryptographic equipment in the event of capture. Used only as a last resort, Thermite could burn right down through the hull and sink the ship. The Quapaw, loaded with enough fuel to get us anywhere on the planet was in "ship shape" and as ready as the eager crew to get started on the long voyage. Our first destination was the Philippines. On departure day all of the huddled wives and girlfriends sobbed and sniffled on the pier while the deck apes hauled in the loosened mooring lines and the Quapaw slowly got underway and headed out to sea. I was pretty excited about it--finally getting my chance to see the world—the real “World”. I hadn't been with Christine for many months and though I missed her deeply I had grown used to it. It had lost its immediacy, so I wasn't moping around like many of the crew who had just said goodbye to their women. I don't remember ever seeing a man cry openly about it; they do today, but not back then. In addition to my regular work schedule I also stood the lookout and helm watch. Everybody in Operations and the deck department was required to become proficient at the helm. Following the command of the Captain, or in his place the officer of the deck, the helmsman’s job was to keep the gyrocompass as steady on the heading as possible and the engines at the designated speed with the Engine Order Telegraph, which was mounted on a post left of the helm. He also had to relay messages from the lookout to the bridge, which were conveyed through a metal voice tube directly above the helm. That was about it. The ship was easy to steer in a calm sea but in rough weather it was difficult maintaining a steady heading with the Quapaw's old-fashioned wooden wheel and slow reflexes. In the previous months many stern reminders had followed my zigzag wake as I learned to keep the ship on course. By now I had gotten the hang of it. A four-hour watch rotated each hour between the helm and the lookout. In foul weather the watch partners raced to beat each other to the bridge (also known as the pilot house) in order to get the last exhaustive hour on lookout. After a while I got assigned to the radar watch on a regular basis and took the helm only occasionally after that. On a calm clear night, the Milky Way’s glittering garland mirrored itself across the surface of the dead flat sea. An occasional meteorite met its own reflection at the horizon and quickly disappeared like a spark into a pail of water. The churning wake and the rumble of the Quapaw’s engines eventually faded into white noise, leaving only the sound of the ship’s bow knifing through the unexpecting sea. Flying fish, roused by the great grey intruder emerged from the crests of bow waves like squadrons of tiny airplanes. The big ones sometimes flew hundreds of feet and left phosphorescent stitches in the water as they dipped their quivering tails to regain loft again and again and again like stones skipped across a pond. On the horizon other ships appeared and disappeared like nameless twinkling planets populated with aliens. In heavy seas the lookout rode out his watch up on the bucking and rolling flying bridge with a firm grip on the handrail, bracing himself against the spindrift that doused his hair with so much salt it became stiff as straw. In fog the ships whistle, which was mounted mere inches above the lookout's head, blew at regular intervals so loudly that even with hands tightly clasped over his ears, he could still feel it rattling his teeth. Down in the engine room, the bilge rats stood their hellish watches over the throbbing diesels and struggled to stay awake throughout the mind-numbing hours of bone jarring, soul numbing engine-noise, stifling heat and noxious fumes. I despised that ship and everything it stood for, but the snipes hated the very guts of it and at the end of a four-hour watch they crawled up from the Quapaw's stinking bowels with murder flashing in their eyes. The thick soundproofed door to the engine room opened directly onto the mess deck, momentarily flooding the dining area with the din and stench of Hades whenever a snipe flung it open. The pity we felt was enough to keep us quiet about the sudden disruption. Before long the ship and its crew settled into a monotonous underway routine, broken only by the changing weather and the breaking down of machines by the wearing away of mechanical parts and likewise with the men, as the abrasion of nerves rubbing nerves in close quarters as disparate personalities chafed and ground at each other while the days and nights wore on and on and on in our pitching and rolling, self contained, ever-moving, prison. The majority of the crew got along reasonably well with each other, enough for a peaceful co-existence most of the time, and I was no exception, for I enjoyed the company of many of my mates and had, early on, resigned myself to making the best of it. There was however a big engineman named Hootman who nursed some undefined grudge against me. Not specifically against me really, as he was a bully to anyone he could push around and inevitably it was my turn. Already there existed a natural enmity between Operations and Engineering, arising primarily from our opposite working environs. On top of that they were under constant direction from the bridge. "All ahead full. All back two thirds. Shut down engines one and two, etc, etc...." They must have also harbored a lot of resentment for being quite literally looked down upon in their stinking hell-hole by Operations. Whatever the cause, there was a lot of friction between Hootman and me, and one day it reached the ignition point when he challenged me to meet in the after-hold which, on a ship, is the equivalent to being invited “outside”. Well, I wasn't so sure how wise that would be. Hootman was, after all, one of the bigger guys on the ship and maybe he was the type to grab a dogging wrench or something. But I pegged him for one of those all hawk and no spit types, and challenged him to have a go at me on the spot, right there in front of everyone, "If your balls are as big as your mouth, if you have any balls that is?" His response was that I was the one lacking the gonads, which in escalating turns had me to daring him with a few chicken-shits, and a string of pussys. That pretty much obliged him to take a poke at me, and he had every right to do so by then simply to save face. It was a risky bluff on my part against a man whom I judged had about a 75 percent chance of kicking my skinny ass. Under the circumstance though, that twenty-five percent I held in my tightly-cocked fists maybe started looking to Hootman like the one bullet in a game of Russian roulette, and to take that bullet in front of the crew might have been more than he was willing to gamble. The truth was, for me anyway, that if my twenty-five percent was getting me beaten to death, I could count on my shipmates to pull Bluto off of me. That was not the case behind the dogged-down door of the after-hold. Turned out my hunch was right—the irate engineman swallowed. The other possibility of course being that he was in other respects also a bigger man than I and decided to spare me a pounding in front of my shipmates. Anyhow there remained an uneasy stalemate between Hootman and me from that point on. Fighting aboard ship was surprisingly rare, the consequences being harsh for both participants, no matter how it started; it was considered damaging of government property. On shore it was a different story altogether, especially in bars after liberal quantities of alcohol had been sloshed onto over-heated tempers. One might expect that under those circumstances the hard feelings that had smoldered and were suppressed aboard ship would burst out of control, and occasionally that did happen, but hostilities were almost always redirected toward outsiders, other sailors mostly, from other ships. They were viewed as separate tribes staking out turf in the open territory of the liberty ports. On the beach the Quapaw crewmembers were shipmates—family. On the beach we watched-out for our own. Most of our resentments were not in fact against each other so much as they were against the Navy itself and the petty “Mickey Mouse bullshit” that flowed incessantly down through the brass and onto the heads of us enlisted pukes. The U.S. Navy is the most feudal of all the military services, the most rigidly hierarchical, and the most steeped in what a lot of us non-lifers regarded as pointless, archaic tradition. It was the Vietnam era conscripts who eventually persuaded the Navy to modernize the enlisted uniform. We were of the opinion that the old one looked fine on little boys and organ grinder's monkeys, but ridiculous on grown men. After the Navy capitulated, a whole generation of sailors looked like ordinary bus drivers, some wearing regulation shorthair wigs to conceal ponytails and Afros. The venerable United States Navy had changed to survive the injuries and insults of a generation of angry swabbies just as we would ultimately survive the Navy. We were after all just getting even. Recently the U.S. Navy decided to pull the "classic" uniform out of mothballs. Perhaps the move was out of sentiment for the old tradition or maybe the Navy is truly a modern one after all and simply fell victim to a retro fashion trend. So now once again sailors are hitting the beach in bell-bottom trousers, jumpers, silk scarves and white hats. It pleases me as much as anyone now that I have entered the age of sentimentality. Could be we’ll see two hundred more years of monkey suits gracing seaports around the world. I'm surprised they don't wear them on the "Star Ship" Enterprise. Any old sailor would feel right at home sailing into deep space under the command of Capt. James T. Kirk. "Steady as she goes." "Aye aye Captain." Our only visitors were the occasional lone albatross dreamily sailing the ship’s tailwind, often gliding behind us for days on end without ever flapping a wing. Once an albatross landed on the fantail and remained in the same spot for several days. He just stood there unmoving like a sentry standing his post. If it happened to be in the way, someone simply picked up the two-foot tall bird and moved it elsewhere. Having no natural predators it didn't seem to mind at all. It just stood there and watched the crew--actually appeared to be interested in what the deck hands were doing. Then one morning it was gone, off to continued wanderings. Another time an albatross perched on the yardarm next to an antenna and we were unable to transmit for fear of electrocuting it. Every sailor knows the consequences of violating that taboo. ...Day after day, day after day, We stuck, nor breath nor motion, As idle as a painted ship Upon a painted ocean. Coleridge Then one day for no apparent reason the old gooney bird spread his great wings and flew away. A sparrow lost at sea wasn't so lucky. The little bird struggled against the wind for the longest time, skimming the tops of the waves just off the port side. That far out at sea meant that it had probably been flying for a week or more. It was obviously in trouble. In one final Herculean effort it flew up to the wing of the bridge and landed on the barrel of the 50 cal. machine-gun. It was perched there, exhausted but resting safely on the gun barrel, when the gunner's mate walked by and casually waved the little bird away. "Hey bird, don't shit on my gun." The poor frightened sparrow took to the air again and promptly fell into the water. That was it for Mister Sparrow--dinner for the fishes. The open ocean is not a friendly place. On many mornings, flying fish could be found scattered about the deck. Having been attracted to the port lights like moths to a candle, they ended up as an unshared breakfast delicacy for the Chief Mess cook. For those crewmembers not on watch we had a movie every night on the fantail. In bad weather, movies were shown on the mess deck. I can't remember if we had popcorn or not; seems like I would if we did. What little spare time we had was spent reading, writing, or playing the current popular card game. Gambling was officially forbidden aboard ship, but as one would expect, it took place anyway. Most of the time we were kept busy just to keep us busy on the long voyage to the Philippine Islands. When I was a boy, my father spoke wistfully of the Philippines, like he had traveled to a distant planet—like he’d really been somewhere. He had spent part of the war on a landing craft in the islands and had brought home a number of sharks teeth, a small bag of coins and other mementoes including a beautiful polished rainbow colored agate, which he gave to me one day when I got old enough not to lose it. It became my most prized possession-until I lost it somewhere on the road to adulthood. He kept those things along with his medals and other souvenirs in a drawer that smelled of long ago and far away. I can still picture my dad and his friends leaning back on creaking kitchen chairs with a jelly glass of whiskey in one hand and a Lucky Strike notched in the fingers of the other. Thin blue plumes of smoke curled to the ceiling as they regaled each other with fascinating stories about the war, often in colorful words that a little boy couldn't quite understand, pausing momentarily to tussle a kid’s hair when he passed through the smoke filled room. All of them had been to dangerous sounding places with exotic names like Guadalcanal, Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima and Corregidor. Seemed as though they had lead a exciting and adventurous life over there, but they had also left an important part of themselves behind, a part I always wanted to know--a part I am now, at twice their age then, only beginning to comprehend. As an old man, ulcers on my father’s arms kept company with a pale blue tattoo of a ship's anchor with USN written on it. It was as much a part of him as his big bald head and his cigarettes. When he was cremated a few years ago after being killed by those same cigarettes , I winced at images inflamed in my mind of the faded anchor drawn a half century earlier in a long gone tattoo parlor in the Philippines, bursting into flame and then finally crumbling into ashes. The much-anticipated first sight of a long-sought destination has become an almost quaint notion to modern travelers. Most people today depart from one nondescript airport and arrive at an almost identical one a few hours later. The only thrill is seeing a familiar face waiting in the crowd. No "Land Ho!" or "There it is, see right there, see," pointing excitedly into the wind at a scarcely visible protuberance on the horizon. Instead the oblivious traveler bounces white knuckled and blind down indistinguishable runways. There isn't even enough time in the trip to fully appreciate the departure before you have to prepare for the arrival, let alone settling into that space between, which is what used to be called traveling. Some people even wear watches that tell the time of where they were, where they are, and where they're going to be all at once, like they are merely traveling through an inconvenient passage of time. Not so for the crewmembers of a slow moving ship. While crossing the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean on a small vessel, the effect of every wave is felt deep in the flesh and bones of every man. The songs of the sea pass by in the continuous chorus of the wind, and every cloud is witnessed scudding slowly across the great blue dome above. Halfway there you’ve forgotten where you started and whom you left behind. Without the certainty of solid ground underfoot you learn to move with the ocean as naturally as does the ship. After while it begins to feel normal to always be in motion, even as you sleep, sometimes lashed to your bunk so as to not roll out. You got used to it; you had to. It's like in the dead of winter when you can no longer remember the sensations of summer. The sea changes you. You adapt. The closer we got to the Philippines the more the “old timers” conversation turned toward liberty. "The first thing I'm gonna to do when we get there is..." "I got a girl waitin' for me at the Queen Bee." "I'm gonna get me a martini and one of them two dollar pepper steaks at that Magsaysay Avenue restaurant." "Not me, I'm going straight to the M&B bar and get shit-faced on San Miggies, the Manila brewed ones, they’re the best, get myself a short-time, eat a dozen baloots, and the next day I'm gonna to fart-up the whole ship for you guys." A baloot, by the way, is a pickled half-developed duck embryo. When shore becomes a mere fantasy, when every cell in the body has lost memory of it the way your flesh forgets the feel of sex after while, you catch sight of land--just a sliver of it and, like a horny glimpse of cleavage, it is a thrill. On the verge of something, whether it is love, art, death, or land, it is where we feel the most alive. The charts told us precisely where to look through the binoculars for the first sight of land. Suddenly there it was--The Philippines! The Quapaw was a small ship allowing us easy passage between some small jungle-shrouded Islands through a shallow back channel into Subic Bay. On one island a rickety bamboo dock stilted down the muddy bank into the blue waters of a lagoon. Through the binoculars I could make out several naked dark-skinned people standing at waters edge watching our ship go by. Some thatched huts nestled amongst the trees. I passed the glasses to Bos'n Beaver, a man as salty as the sea itself and not, in the open mind of a gullible twenty-year old, prone to exaggeration. "They're headhunters," he said nonchalantly. Beyond the distant hills a perfect cone-shaped volcano spewed a faint dark wisp of smoke into the sky. A strange prehistoric panorama spread out before us, like one of those two-page pictures in a junior high school science book depicting the Jurassic period. The sight of such startling wonders exceeded all of my expectations. I could not have been more amazed had I seen a brontosaurus grazing in the valley at the base of the volcano. Now, by God, I was seeing the World. [In a letter to Christine dated Jan.20, 1968 I wrote that the next day we would arrive at the Philippine Islands through the Straight of San Bernardino. Recently, with Google Earth I retraced our route and was thrilled to identify the volcano we saw that day as the 8000 foot Mayon volcano, a spectacular backdrop to Rapu-Rapu Island, I believe it was, on which I did not that day see any dinosaurs. Nor with Google Earth was I able to find any cannibals] Not long after that we were tying up to a pier at the sprawling United States Naval Base in Subic Bay. Chapter Ten "Give me liberty or give me death!" As soon as we were tied up, those two thirds of the crew not on duty got ready for liberty call. A sailor can "shit shower and shave," and be happily skipping down the gangway five minutes after the last line is doubled-up and secure. The Quapaw crew’s usual destination was a favorite bar, where the diminutive dark-skinned girls greeted the boys at the door with a big smile and friendly hands right where she knew it would be most appreciated. "You buy me drink sailor?" You bet, baby san. Sailors live only for leave and liberty, especially at sea after months of vanishing memories of the simple pleasures of walking on land—solid ground, of the sweet fragrances of trees and flowers and grass and of the joys of drink and good food and of the warm company of women, and especially women. It is a rich bounty--a ship-full of sailors. They’re like a school of ravenous fish and, like the hungry fish of the sea, the boys always go for the bait and the bait is always the same. A good twenty-minute walk down a well-worn path from the docks lead eventually to a narrow bridge. Across that bridge lay the raunchy little port-town of Olongopo City. I was reminded, the first time I saw it, of “Pleasure Island” where Pinocchio narrowly escaped being turned into a jackass. The razzle-dazzle hubbub of its seamy commerce was irresistible to young men fresh from the sea. On one side of that bridge were the trimmed lawns, utilitarian buildings, haze gray ships and jeeps, and the typical quietude of a naval base. Across the bridge a fantasy world sprang up in full bloom from the wild seeds of young men's desires. The sailor's wet dream come true, Olongopo City was a carnival-like maze of chaotic muddy streets and wood plank sidewalks lined end to end with bars, brothels, restaurants, souvenir shops, tattoo parlors, and street merchants of everything a young man out on the town might fancy. One could find his way there by smell alone, for the murky slow-moving river flowing under the bridge served as the city's sewer and so earned the nickname remembered by generations of sailors-- Shit River. Under the bridge, feral children schooled in the raw sewage, begging the sailors crossing above to toss them coins. In the dark the boys and girls could quickly distinguish between a penny and a dime flipped through the air and snag the dime every time. The more enterprising child could catch a quarter on the tip of her tongue. Some sailors amused themselves by throwing larger coins just beyond the children's reach, forcing them to dive for their reward; the plunk of a half dollar turned the urchins into seething piranhas. Incredibly one of them always got the coin before it settled into the muck. Other sailors turned away from the pleading children so as to not encourage them. Still they treaded the filthy gray water, shouting for more. The main thoroughfare, Magsaysay Avenue, was a broad potholed dirt street choked with the exhaust fumes of kaleidoscopically decorated jeep-like vehicles called jitneys. Like frenetic insects, they scurried, bumper to bumper through Olongopo's clogged arteries, beeping through the cacophony to catch any sailor's attention. To reach our destination we had to run a gauntlet of heckling peddlers, pimps, pushers, and pickpockets. Stop for one second and they swarmed over you like mosquitoes. You could hop a jitney to escape the throngs if you didn't mind the driver haranguing you with an endless array of goods, from dope to virgins. "You like cherry-girl, maybe you like little boy?" The feculence of the river permeated the labyrinthine streets of Olongopo, commingling with a rank potpourri of odors: stale bar smells of beer, urine, cigarette smoke, after shave and cheap cologne, charcoal roasted pig, monkey and dog meat, and tainting it all, a lubricious whiff of pussy gave the damp warm night air a thick redolence of cheap raw sex. Girls were brought in from all over the Philippines to work the sex trade, some barely into their teens. When a Carrier group was in, the number of prostitutes blossomed overnight to accommodate the several thousand extra sailors, and likewise, the price for sex rose to meet the demand. An endless stream of Uncle Sam's boys lost their virginity on "Cinderella" liberty to a five-dollar "short-time" in a sticky little back-alley bed in Olongopo City, and then they staggered back by midnight to their ships, depleted of senses, pisos, and semen. Dearest Christine, Feb. 14th 1968 I'm sitting out in the open air of the bridge. Parker and Dolan are also up here playing recordings. I’ve had a fairly busy day, but got off for a while to bowl a few lines with our team. It's just another good excuse to partake of a few sociable beers. I noticed two big red valentines on the door of the EM club, which reminded me that this is the day for lovers. It's still our day Christine, even if we do happen to be 47,000,000 miles apart. It seems at least that far, doesn't it? An inch is a mile when it separates us. I remember once when we were at Larry and Nita's, and the thickness of a blanket was an unwelcome barrier. I wish I knew where you were right now, if you're in school, sleeping, or whatever. I hope you're thinking of me this instant and loving me as I love you. I can't wait 'til this thing is over with, Love. I hope you don't think I'm neglecting you. I know I haven't been writing as I usually do. It's not all because I’ve been busy either. I’ve had a few nights off lately. Here's what happens. During the day while I'm working I tell myself, "Well Charles let's stay aboard tonight and write Christine, and maybe others and maybe read for a while. Then at four O'clock, "LIBERTY CALL! "Everyone's running around putting on clean whites, shaving, taking showers and whistling, 'cause it's time to hit the beach. Then someone says, "Come on Ras," and, well.... So then all the Quapaw sailors meet at a bar and usually end up taking the place over. Round after round, and we dance with those little bar girls, "hostesses." There are some pretty girls in Olongopo, but a few guys have found out the hard way that they don't make such nice bed partners-- penicillin shots in the butt and maybe a nice little disease to take home to their wives. I never criticize a man if it's within his principles, and I damn sure don't expect him to criticize me either if my principles don't happen to match his. Don't worry about me, okay Love? I have too much to look forward to. I often wonder what it will be like for us sex starved lovers when we are together again. I can imagine. Can't you? I haven’t been away long enough to forget how irresistible you are. I know exactly how much will power we have too. Remember that time down by the airport? I'll be loving you as always Charles Well, who was I kidding. Love is one thing, desire is another. The Quapaw crew's favorite hangout in Olongopo was a dingy little establishment residing noisily at the top of a flight of creaky wooden stairs above a popular restaurant on one of the busiest corners of Magsaysay Avenue. There was nothing special about the M&B bar to distinguish it from the myriad of other honky-tonks, other than its familiarity to us liberty hounds. In the anonymous world of sailors and bar girls nothing warms a young man's heart faster than being greeted at the door by a pretty smiling girl who knows his first name and he knows hers. And it seemed like all the girls at the M&B were prettier than average; the ones you know the best always are. There was one, however, that seemed to shine above the rest; her name was Annette. It was a name slyly chosen to stir the heart of a lovelorn sailor and conjure up that most desirable of females imaginable at the time, that delectable embodiment of feminine perfection, the perky, nubile Mouseketeer dream-girl, Annette Funicello. There were any number of Annettes in Olongopo, at least one for each bar it seemed, but this particular one made a tantalizing claim, as did her two equally lovely and charming sisters, who also worked at the bar (and it was vouched by their mother who owned the M&B) that they were all three virginal ”cherry girls.” The mere thought of it drove my shipmates and me goofy with drunken desire and it did the same for business with the other girls as well who couldn't still make such claims for themselves. But was it true? Inoculated by true love and devotion against such feverish lusting, I thought myself immune to the siren's songs. I could dance with the girls, buy them drinks, and guzzle the ice-cold San Miguels one after another and my heart would hold true for I was a man in love...and spoken for. But at every liberty call I kept returning to the M&B by habit or design, I didn't know which, and the more I drank and the more I danced, the more I was reminded of the life I'd left behind--thousands of miles behind--the endless days, weeks, and months behind, in that far away place, the other side of the world, the other side of life, that sweetness left behind, that tender warmth of femininity. And as time went by I drank to forget, to dull the sharper edges of my memories. The familiar love songs revolving in the jukebox were chosen to pluck at our lonely heartstrings. Booze was the primer, but it was the music that pumped-up the hot blood, rousing the even the dullest boys to sloppy romance, and calming some of the rowdiest ones. One steamy night the heartbreakingly beautiful Annette and I danced near the jukebox as Percy Sledge cried out his famous love ballad "When a Man Loves a Woman." She entwined herself around me, her hot damp forehead pressing hard into my cheek. That girl was almost too hot to touch. Like a dried out bristle cone pine standing in the path of a forest fire I was ready to burst into flame. Then she pulled me down to her and whispered something breathtaking into my ear. She was saving herself for me! I would be the one to go where no man had gone before. "But not tonight." She wanted to get to know me first... And I wanted to get to know her too.... Boy did I ever? Annette and her sisters were called “hostesses”, as were all the girls who danced with the sailors and snuggled up to them at the tables. All that was required of us boys was to keep buying them fancy drinks decorated with little umbrellas and maraschino cherries, which were really only little glasses of colored ginger ale costing us a buck a glass. The girls stayed sober; there was work to do. Buying enough Shirley Temples to keep the girls coming back, plus the customary rounds for the table quickly poured the sailor's hard earned seaman's pay right out of his wallet and straight down the drain. Flitting from table to table on a busy night, a clever “butterfly girl” could keep two or three sailors happy at once while the carefree boys got too drunk to notice, too bleary-eyed to count their own money. But a girl was always willing to oblige, making a gesture of honesty by waving the five she'd taken from the sailor's shirt pocket to distract him from the ten she slyly tucked into her padded braw. Meanwhile, under the table, a warm little hand gently resting in the sailor’s thigh slowly inched upward. Her inevitable lips tickled his ear in a whisper barely audible above the rhapsodic "Unchained Melody" wavering through the smoke filled room, "I love you no bullshit, you want short-time?" That sailor’s a goner. Annette never allowed me to buy her a drink in the bar. Instead we went out to places with no sailors or American food where she introduced me to her friends and to chopsticks. Olongopo was a different town when I walked down the street with a Filipino girl--No more hustles and hassles, no pimps, pushers, and pickpockets; it felt safe and friendly and genuine. Like at her mother’s bar, this was her world. One night a drunken seaman from another ship was pestering one of Annette's sisters to dance. When he wouldn't accept a polite "no thank you," I assumed that, given my new status, I was obliged to persuade him to show a little respect and find some other girl to dance with. Well that swabbie didn't like me butting in on his action and snarled belligerently into my face, "Who the fuck do you think you are squid?" In bars filled with inebriated sailors, the slightest confrontation soon escalated into a bloody brawl and, just when I was about to get my gallant nose bashed in by an angry beer-mug wielding sailor, an arm rocketed right past me and landed squarely on the man’s chin, sending him and his beer-mug sailing. That arm belonged to that big bilge rat, Engineman Hootman. We dispersed the M&B, seconds ahead of the shore patrol, and aimed for another bar down the street a ways before calling it a night. Later, on the boisterous staggering march back to the ship, I swayed drunkenly over to Hootman and sloppily thanked him for the haymaker that had undoubtedly saved me a trip to the infirmary. He just shrugged. "Don’t worry ‘bout it Ras." Hootman and I, though not exactly pals, had a truce between us from that point on, and some respect on my part. I would have done the same for him, though probably not with the same effect; on the beach we were, after all, mates. Chivalry is more a trouble-making impulse than the noble gesture most of us American boys believed it to be. Those bargirls certainly didn't need any of us interrupting business by defending their honor, being quite capable themselves of holding their own against any pesky sailor. Virtually all of them carried butterfly knives in garter belt sheaths hidden discreetly under their miniskirts and they were willing, if not eager, to use them. One of our favorite pastimes was to dangle a dollar bill in front of a girl while she stood with her hands at her sides like a western gunslinger waiting for the bill to drop. She'd stick her butterfly knife through it before it hit the deck, every single time. With that little trick a bargirl could gain an easy buck, and at the same time earn a tremendous amount of R-E-S-P-E-C-T from us boys. When an Olongopo City girl got ready for work she sharpened her knife first, then polished her nails and put on her make-up--and that knife wasn't her only weapon either. One of the busiest bars in Olongopo, the “Queen Bee,” boasted an amazing Filipino band called the "Gay Toppers." They could imitate any group from the Animals to the Zombies. It was at this bar, I recall, that at intermission, some of the girls, at the urging of the clientele, would strip naked and stuff toilet tissue between their legs, then light it on fire and dash around the room, heatin’ it up for the sailors. It was an eternal mystery how they kept from burning themselves. One night a big fired-up Seabee grabbed a girl by the neck and shoved her head down to his dick. "Take a bite of this bitch," he bellowed. He expected to get a round of laughs from his drinking buddies, but before anyone had a chance to laugh, the girl, who was quite literally half his size, deftly slipped off one of her stiletto heels and punched several holes into the top of the Seabee's head with it before he wisely judged that it was time to turn her loose. She then drew her butterfly knife and chased him out the door with it as blood streamed down his face and all over his freshly laundered dress-whites. The other girls held her back at the front door as they screamed Tagalog curses at the Seabee and his buddies until they had finally disappeared son-of-a-bitching into the night down Magsaysay Avenue. The rest of us minded our manners until the girls finished dusting themselves off and calmed down a bit. Those girls knew the full meaning of the word liberated; the only thing they ever took from a man was his money. In the following days I was trotting down the gangway at "liberty-call" even before the quarterdeck watch had finished piping it, and heading straight to the M&B bar. One evening when I swung through the door, one of the girls shouted to Annette, who was having a bite to eat in the small apartment behind the bar, "Your boyfriend's here." It had a sweet familiar ring to it. I felt wonderful and awful at the same time. Christine was still in high school and surely she had danced with someone and even more I would one day find out. I didn't really want to think about that. I didn't really want to think about what was on my mind either--I just wanted to do it. "You hungry," she chirped, kissing me hello? Giggling playfully, the beautiful Filipino girl sat on my lap and dropped unfamiliar but delectable morsels onto my eager tongue. She gazed out the window and cooed dreamily in Pidgin English. "Will you go with me to the beach? I know a place where we can be alone. We can take a Jitney--make a peekneek." So we made a real date for the next time I had liberty, a whole day together, just her and me. I would pick her up at her house in a jitney, no ship, no mates, no Olongopo City bar with Madame Mom and cherry-girl sisters. Just her and me together on a blanket laid on soft warm sand, just her in a teeny bikini and me, her and me and a “peekneek,” just her and me swimming naked in the sunset. I was deliriously preoccupied during the following few days back out at sea. We had some routine work to do, towing targets or pulling a ship off a reef or something. I don't remember. Visions of going where no man had gone before clouded my head. On the very day we were supposed to return to Subic we got orders for an abrupt change of schedule--an immediate departure for Vietnam. There was no way to contact Annette. All I had was her address with directions to her house, which she had carefully written for me on a little scrap of paper. My feelings for Annette lasted about as long as a bouquet of fresh-cut flowers. I reread some perfumed letters from Christine; they smelled like her. She had licked the envelope flap and the stamp thus imbuing them with minute traces of her physical self—only a few precious molecules, but it was something of her to touch. Her sweet words flowed from the letters and filled my heart. She loved me, she really loved me and I really loved her. The alluring Annette had merely reawakened the sleeping desire that lay within my aching heart. Now I truly understood the depth of meaning in those words--that time, as it goes by so slowly, can do so much. Was she still mine? Was I still hers? The islands fell further and further below the horizon, as did the dwindling flames of my desire. Now my heart ached more than ever for Christine, the level of torture having been raised by the twisting of a knife--a pearl-handled butterfly knife. But it was going be a long time before I would see my true love again, and when you are seventeen and twenty and far away from the one you love, a year becomes eternity and four become impossible. It began to seem like I would never get back home again. Every Navy port has its own version of Olongopo City, with minor variations on the theme. Hong Kong had the prettiest girls--Chinhae, Korea, the homeliest. The crew of the Quapaw referred to Sasebo, Japan as "Knobber Town," alluding to the girls (or the sailor's) preference there for oral sex. It could be gotten under the table, as one sat and enjoyed a bottle of Kirin with his buddies. Picture four drunken pot-bellied chiefs sitting across from each other at a table. They’re being serviced below, and placing bets on who could hold out the longest--each "loser" buying the next round of drinks for those still in. Join the Navy and see the world. We had the "hotsie baths" of Yokasuka to look forward to and then there was the ultra-exotic Bangkok if we were lucky enough to get an assignment there. But Olongopo City was a special place--a right of passage. It was the fleet's gateway. It was the first stop on the WestPac, and the last one going home. Most of us draftee sailors ended up in the Navy by our efforts to avoid Vietnam, yet somehow we still failed to appreciate the immense gravity of the war--its ability to draw everything into it like a devouring black hole. Now I too was experiencing that deathly wave of anxiety that has haunted countless men since the beginning of human history, that march to the battlefield with its overwhelming sense of uncertainty. As the Quapaw steamed toward the perilous waters off North Vietnam a dark specter of war cast a somber pall over the crew, especially among us first timers. I snapped at one of the bilge rats to turn off his goddamn Country Joe MacDonald tape. We weren't in the mood for it... "Whoopee we're all gonna die!" Chapter Eleven Our first mission upon arriving in the war zone was to shadow a Soviet spy ship that was masquerading as a fishing trawler. The pretense was pathetically unconvincing; they never caught a fish and they bristled from stem to stern with an impressive array of eavesdropping antennae. Their code name was "Skunk Delta.” Ours was "Gargles". The operation took place in the international waters of the Tonkin Gulf on “Yankee Station,” referring to an ever-changing secret reference point from which positions of every vessel in the area were charted. “Skunk Delta’s” primary mission was to interrupt the U.S. carrier task force’s flight operations; ours was to run interference, by physically staying between them and the carrier as it launched its bomb-laden planes and by jamming the trawler's receivers to prevent them from intercepting communications between the carrier and its fighter pilots. The Soviets repeatedly put themselves at considerable risk whenever they were able to outmaneuver us and place their vessel directly into the path of the thousand foot aircraft carrier “Enterprise,” code named "Climax" as it swept through the Gulf at an astonishing sixty miles an hour. Things could get pretty dicey in the Gulf of Tonkin. Our orders were to stay within a thousand yards of the "Spook" at all times, following wherever they lead, which was frequently into dangerous waters. Often, however, we simply sat motionless, day after relentlessly boring day, staring at each other across the open water and waiting for some action. One night "Skunk Delta" flashed us light in international code. As always, the captain was awakened whenever anything out of the ordinary happened. After a few tense minutes the message was translated and read aloud to the incredulous skipper. "CAN WE HAVE SOME ICE CREAM?" "Don't answer them," the old man grumbled as he left the bridge and headed back down to his cabin. A couple nights later we were still dead in the water when, out of the blue, Skunk Delta gets underway at full speed ahead. They had put themselves on a collision course with the “Mighty Q.” To conserve fuel we had shut down three of our four main engines and were unable to get underway on such short notice. Their masthead lights indicated a steering casualty, which, by the laws of the sea made us liable for being in their way. Our masthead lights indicated that all was normal with us, so in a frantic attempt to show that we had no immediate power to get underway, our Quartermaster frantically started throwing switches on the lighting control panel. In all the confusion he panicked and flipped the wrong ones thus causing an embarrassing assortment of lights to go on and off, indicating a rapidly changing sequence of ridiculous and embarrassing conditions: BARGE IN TOW, MAN OVERBOARD, VESSEL SINKING-NEED ASSISTANCE. We went to Battle Stations and braced for a collision. Then at the last instant “Skunk Delta” veered astern of the “Quapaw,” missing us by mere inches and scaring the bejeezus out of the entire crew. Once again the trawler flashed light signals to us as they disappeared into the darkness. This time the obviously amused Ruskies asked the question that contained the seeds of cold war misunderstanding in a nutshell. "Why are you angry with me?" We were under strict orders by fleet command to make no contact with the trawler whatsoever. Nonetheless one day when they pulled alongside within a hundred yards of our port side, another crewmember and I hid behind the towing winch and gave them the peace sign. They waved enthusiastically while several of them took photographs. The rest of the Quapaw crew thought they were just mocking us Americans. My friend and I imagined a big Pravda headline above photographs of our two smiling faces and our subversive signals, "TRUE SENTIMENTS OF THE AMERICAN SAILOR." Luckily we were never found out; it would have been a Captain's Mast for sure. Anything floating in the water was investigated. Occasionally it was something of interest--like the time we hauled up a cockpit instrument panel from a downed aircraft. I decided to have some fun with it--play a little prank on the pranksters. With some help I hauled the instrument panel up to the port-side wing of the bridge and attached to it all sorts of wires, lights, and gadgetry, then I aimed the contraption at Skunk Delta. They took the bait and quickly pulled alongside--about two hundred feet away. It was the closest we had been to each other since the near collision. Their decks crawled with technicians aiming sensing devices and shooting at us with long telephoto lenses. It was hard for me to keep a straight face while I "operated" the "device" under their close scrutiny. I wondered if they had recognized me as one of the "Peaceniks" on the fantail the other day and thought maybe I was trying to convey important secrets to them. Once again we made no effort to communicate with each other, like next-door neighbors who refused to speak after some long-forgotten insult. After while they veered off with more pictures and valuable intelligence to analyze of the weird inscrutable Americans. We tagged along. On Yankee Station we received mail only every couple weeks. It arrived by helicopter, lowered on a line. Then the outgoing mailbag was put on the hook and off it went--our only contact with the outside world. I always got more mail than anyone, and sent more, almost all of it to and from Christine. Her letters to me were like a brook burbling through the desert. Sometimes it was a little embarrassing to get so much mail when many of my shipmates never got any. She kept me going. January 10, 1968, Wed. Dearest Charles, It's about 12.30 and I'm sitting on my bed with my hair in rollers and my nightgown on. I've had a long, busy, but routine day. Last night we played Newport, and I had to take tickets. I got so depressed at the game that I walked all the way home from the high school. I love to walk at night. Gail Burgess walked with me and we just talked and talked. I sort of felt the flu coming on, so I slept in until 10;00 this morning then went to school for the afternoon classes. I had to work tonight until 10:00. "The Bible" is playing now. Remember when we saw it in Portland. I will be so happy when we can be together again. We have so much to look forward to. We can make love and go places and just talk and talk. God, how I miss you, and those things. I think we will always appreciate those things because we know what it is like to be without them for such long periods of time. I've been reading two books that I got for Christmas. "Listen to the Warm" and "Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows" by Rod McKuen. God, I sure love his poems. A few months ago I bought a record of him reading his poetry with background music. I'll play it for you when you come home. He writes most of the stuff Glenn Yarborough sings. Here are a few of my favorites. For S.G. I do not know what is more beautiful than your tangled black hair on a white pillow. I have thought about it all afternoon and decided not even butterflies or children or blossoms in the hills above the beach can compare. If I had money I would not but a comb or a red ribbon to decorate it. Instead I might charter worlds so you could walk in them and everyone could see your hair. Stanyan Street Isn't it pretty? I always wondered who S. C. is. I like the personal touch he puts in his writing. One night, following several monotonous days of inactivity, "Skunk Delta" unexpectedly got underway and headed suspiciously toward the coast of North Vietnam. We dutifully followed. Though ever-mindful of the dangers of intruding into territorial waters, we often came close enough to call it fudging, even closer as a matter of fact. The "Mighty Q" may have been only a little fleet tug but a heavy cruiser with eight-inch guns lurked several miles away, but still well within firing range, watching over us like a mother hen. However, in the dark of night it's often difficult to tell one chick from another, which is where that Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) machine came in handy. On the radar screen two distinct blips merged into one; close to the shore "Skunk Delta" and an unknown vessel had rendezvoused with each other. Then the blips separated as one of the ships headed back out to sea, slipping close by us and straight toward the carrier group at flank speed. Again two blips had merged on all of the fleet radar screens as we maneuvered to block the Ruskies. It was at that moment that all of the U.S. Navy ships started clucking like a flock of frantic chickens. Our IFF wasn't responding to their challenges, and they couldn't distinguish "Gargles" from "Skunk Delta." "ETs to the bridge!" Parker and I were frantically going through the usual trouble-shooting procedure while the entire task force repeatedly and impatiently interrogated us. The normally reserved Captain Tschida was pissing his pants, and I was close to filling mine when Parker eventually tweaked the crucial component in the IFF machine that caused the little green reply light to begin its self-identifying blink. A huge sigh of relief swept across the pilot house followed by the usual congratulations to Parker for once again saving the day. But that was no comfort to me for I suspected something disturbing; the remote lights were blinking all right but it looked to me, as I interpreted what the test equipment indicated, that the IFF machine was actually not responding at all. Then it struck me. This was what Parker had always done; he had knowingly or unknowingly somehow tricked the IFF into displaying a false response. At least that is how it looked to me now that two F-4 “Phantoms” had been launched from the deck of the mightiest aircraft carrier in the world, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and were bearing down on us with their landing lights ablaze, prepared to blow an unidentified intruder out of the water. "Hit the deck!" I yelled, believing the Phantoms had dropped bombs when they screamed overhead. But everyone on the bridge, comforted that they had recognized us as friendly, simply assumed they were just showing off or something, and that Ras was just losing it. I realized later that they were looking at our hull number to ID us: an event repeated so frequently as to become routine. I kept the secret to myself as I struggled to unravel the IFF mystery. At times I actually had myself convinced that it did in fact work. But as it turned out, I was only deluding myself. A year later in the yards back at Pearl Harbor (Parker was back home in Texas by that time) I had the IFF removed and overhauled at the base electronic repair facility. When we received the repair report, I was summoned to the wardroom where the OPS officer asked me to read it aloud to the Captain. "The IFF System was improperly wired when it was originally installed." Essentially a succession of ETs had been jerry rigging it for years. "Well Ras, do you have anything to say about this," the skipper asked? Oh boy! I somehow managed to bullshit my way through the awkward situation, confounding my superiors as well as myself; I believed it worked--sometimes. Maybe the test equipment was faulty--blaming it on Hewlett Packard. What were they trying to do, get us killed? So I was ordered to attend the IFF school over on Ford Island. If you've ever seen a "Pearl Harbor" movie, you'll remember that Ford Island is where the “Japs” shot-up a large number of American Aircraft as they sat on the runway, revving their engines. The class lasted a week or two. What stands out most in my memory, for its rarity I suppose, is that out of a class of around 30 officers and enlisted men I got the highest score on the final exam, which redeemed me somewhat with my superiors, but still that machine had me baffled; I was never certain whether it was working or not. [At 2:54 am on July 3, 1988, the Guided Missile frigate USS Vincennes, while deployed in the Persian Gulf, fired two standard surface to air missiles at what the crew believed to be to be an Iranian, American built, F-14 Fighter. Turned out to be instead, Iranian Air flight 655, an A300 Airbus with 290 people on board. All of them perished when one of the missiles blew the airliner to bits. The next day this paragraph appeared in an article in the "Washington Post." "The Vincennes and most airliners are equipped with Identification of Friend or Foe (IFF) electronic boxes that query each other across the sky to establish identities. The Vincennes' IFF questioned the Airbus IFF via telemetry, but received no response. A response would come in radio pulses that would be deciphered and displayed as an identifying number on the ships' combat information center consoles." Twenty years later the size of the IFF unit had shrunken from a vacuum tube behemoth to a small box of microchips, but still the system didn't work. Or did it? The catastrophe was ultimately blamed on the electronics.] Meanwhile, back on the “Yankee Station”, "Skunk Delta" had been relieved by "Skunk Echo," which immediately began a new round of cat and mouse games. Like a fresh tag team they were ready to have a go at us Yanks. The Soviet Captain, cleverly employing some tactics unfamiliar to us, quickly outmaneuvered the unsuspecting veteran Quapaw and thus managed to place his trawler directly into the path of the “USS Enterprise” which was steaming at flank speed dead into the wind and launching F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers for bombing missions against North Vietnam. To our mortification, and soviet jubilation, the bombing run was aborted and we got a public tongue lashing over the airwaves from a task force commander. "God damnit Gargles, get on the ball." "Rrrroger out." Chapter twelve After forty long tiresome days of cat and mouse on “Yankee Station”, another ATF, the “USS Moctobi” at last relieved us of our duties. We immediately set course for Danang. The Viet Cong had blown-up an underwater diesel pipeline in Danang Harbor and our assignment was to get there as quickly as possible and repair the damage. It turned out to be brutally dangerous work, especially for the divers who toiled night and day in the murky swirling depths percolating with diesel oil and deadly writhing sea snakes. January 10,1968 Wednesday Dearest Christine It's hmm--Saturday. Had to think for a minute. It's nighttime and I'm in my "tree," to sleep until 12:00, then up for a watch. We finished repairing that underwater pipeline this afternoon, which was a hell of a chore, especially for those morons in the deck department. It's a wonder no one was killed the way that heavy pipe was being laid on the deck. Two guys had to go over to the hospital anyway: one with a fractured arm and another nearly got crushed when the end of the pipeline came loose from the boom. At night, over in the bay where we were working, the ship's floodlights attracted all kinds of animals--squid, huge jellyfish, barracuda, stingrays, and all kinds of snakes. Last night while I was on watch I rigged up a piece of bent coat hanger and caught several water snakes. One of them got loose and came after me so I had to kill it with a broom. Today I learned from the Doc that they're as deadly as cobras and the only serum is in Bangkok. Needless to say I won't be catching snakes again. I took some pictures of one of them. Tomorrow morning we're going back to "Yankee Station" for two days and then back to Subic. There's a rumor we may go to Taiwan instead. I doubt it though. I enjoy being here, at least more than Pearl. Pearl Harbor is quite boring--and expensive. It's interesting here, and every day I see something new. I'll have lots to tell you about when I come home in September. Everything is so much different than at home. I'll be glad to leave here though, because then I'll be on my way home. I'll be sure to call you when we get back to Pearl. It'll be wonderful to hear your voice again. I often think of your voice speaking familiar words and I become awfully lonely for you. What I would give to hear, "I love you," from your lips, and for just a glimpse of you. It seems too much for me to dream of, seeing, hearing, touching you and having all of you. Goodnight honey, I love youChuck Weeks later, still in Danang, we received orders from SERVRON 5 to proceed south to the Mekong River delta, to provide firepower with the 3" 50 cal. near the port city of Vung Tau. Although the idea of actual combat was a bit unsettling for us tugboat sailors, we were nevertheless eager to use the big gun for something other than target practice. Feeling somewhat like "The Little Tug That Could," we proudly headed down the coast of Vietnam, determinedly chugging toward glory. As we lay offshore of Vung Tau, awaiting further orders, the Bo’s’n’s Mate decided to have a little fun with a new Seaman Apprentice from South Carolina. Green had quickly become the ship's fool. Once when the Bo’s’n’s Mate told him to lay below and retrieve a fifty-ton shackle from the after-hold, Green shook his head, "Boats, aint no way I can lift fifty tons by myself!" Another time when an ordinance handling party was gingerly hauling one of the nitro glycerin-filled hoses up from the magazine, Green was yammering away and not paying attention, when he carelessly dropped one end of the fifteen-foot tube and the brass coupling on the end of it hit the steel deck with a heart-stopping thud. “Watch what the hell you’re doing you dumb fucking knucklehead!” Then there was that memorable day when Green let go of the line paying off the capstan. Boats took off his own hardhat and hammered on poor Green’s hardhat, while he held it tightly onto his head with both hands, and pounded the careless seaman down to the deck like a bent-over nail. Green was our very own Gomer Pyle and he was "Golley" jittery about the impending battle. The crusty old Bo’s’n's Mate had gathered a small group on the fantail for an important announcement. At thirty-plus, “Boats” was, in our youthful eyes, already viewed as an old man in the Navy, where the average sailor was still in his late teens. Boats intoned with as much salty gravitas as he could muster, "Men we need us a volunteer for a suicide mission tonight." All of us were in on the joke except for Green obviously, as he was the butt of it. The rest of us looked sheepishly down at the deck or gazed out over the water as Green nervously surveyed each of his reluctant shipmates. "If none of yus volunteers," Boats insisted, "I'll have to pick one of yus." Following an appalling period of silence throughout which we had all managed to remain grim-faced, Green finally threw up his hands and drawled, "Looks like I'm the one Boats," then he simply shrugged his broad shoulders in resignation. That should have been the end of it, but it wasn't. Boats wanted to play it out and, to no ones surprise, the rest of us went along with it. The Bo’s’n’s Mate briefed Green on his mission--what to wear and such. He would need to blacken his face with burnt cork and put on some dark clothing, bring his Case knife and a garrote, and report to the boat deck at 2100 hrs. This wasn’t the first prank we’d pulled on the gullible Green. In Danang we warned him that Viet Cong snipers had long-range sniper rifles trained on the lighted portholes, then we snickered as he walked up to the foc’sl, ducking as he passed by each porthole. We scared the crap out of him with accounts of sappers throwing cargo nets up over the side and hoards of them climbing aboard. No one cared what the hell was going through that hillbilly’s head. Astonishingly though, at the designated hour, Green dutifully showed up on the boat deck prepared as directed and ready to meet his fate. He wore a black sweater and a watch cap and his face was smeared with soot. Beneath his outward appearance however, he seemed different from before, changed somehow in a fundamental yet indiscernible way. Earlier, when he had gone below, the joke was on him, but when he returned topside in the dark, unrecognizable and ready to die, the joke was on us. Was it a fool standing there, or something else? He looked neither brave nor scared. Green gazed purposefully across the black water toward the distant silhouette of trees, and then in a deadly earnest voice he said something that stunned us all. "Let's do it Boats." The boy Green was gone; in his place stood an amazingly fearless man. As the magnitude of Green's bravery began to sink into the rest of us, a ripple of shame glimmered over the Bo’s’n's Mate,s twisted smirk. He finally forced a broad smile and then guffawed and slapped Green on the back. "Hey kid, it's only a joke!" Green just stood there a while on the boat deck, still looking bold and fearless, but befuddled by his sudden change of fortune. Awestruck by Green’s transformation, the rest of us watched in wonderment as the magnificent aura that had momentarily surrounded the naïve young seaman gradually dissipated and then, happily returning to his former self, Green bellowed in relief, "Oh you guys!" He didn't have to die that night after all. We all had a good chuckle over it, but no one laughed as long and as hard as Green himself. We departed Vung Tau early the next morning without having fired a shot. There was no shore bombardment, no commendations, no medals, and no heroes--except for one. Chapter Thirteen On fresh orders from SERVRON 5 we headed south to Singapore to pick up an enormous floating crane and tow it up the Gulf of Siam to the small port of Sattahip, Thailand. Being ahead of schedule, the Captain altered a course more to the south than was absolutely necessary to reach Singapore in order to make passage through the equator. There is an age-old tradition among seafarers, which is observed during the crossing of the equator. A sailor who has never sailed through that mythic latitude is called a polliwog. Those who have celebrated the ritual passage between the two hemispheres are thereafter known as shellbacks. In 1968 modern ships cruised the modern world, but by custom it was still the old navy. Scuttlebutt had it that we polliwogs were in for a memorable experience. The shellbacks had quietly begun to prepare for the singular event known as "Polliwog Day." Back on the fantail, they started banging together a rather suspicious looking wooden crate. It was about twelve feet long and about as high as a table. Inquisitive onlookers were kept guessing at its purpose. Was it really a cage for sea bats, or a group casket for burial at sea? Chief Pope, the cook, dumped all of the galley garbage into the box. Sometimes he even cooked up extra pots of rice to add to the swill as it fermented under the equatorial sun. The smellier it got, the better the shellbacks liked it, and the more secretive and protective they became of it. In the passing days, on the voyage south, other crudely built and sinister looking structures took shape back aft: pillories, stanchions, and a large box just big enough to hold a man--its lid secured with a big padlock. There were several small holes drilled in the sides of the box and shackles were attached to each end which got us polliwogs to thinking that maybe it could be hoisted out over the side with the seaplane boom and lowered into the water. Each construction generated a new round of questions and more evasive answers. The polliwogs grew increasingly tense as the Quapaw steamed ever closer to that invisible and yet so vivid line. The shellbacks became more gleeful. Even minor insults to shellbacks were made note of, sometimes for dramatic effect on lists kept in shellback pockets. Sometimes it was merely a raised eyebrow that hinted at revenge, or a passing glance over the shoulder. After while simply saying a number, like "five," alluding to a growing number of offenses, was enough to intimidate an incautious polliwog. A few impudent polliwogs began to taunt the shellbacks, paying little heed to their warnings and scoffing at their threats. All was quiet aboard ship the night before the crossing. The seas were calm. At taps the crew turned in with feelings of anticipation toward the morning-- mixed feelings of excitement and of dread. All of us had heard vague rumors about the initiation, but it was a well-kept secret in the navy--shellbacks don't talk about it, and none of us polliwogs imagined the full scope of it. Here then, are some of the highlights of that long ago day, as well as I remember them, of the transformation from tadpole sailor to crusty shellback. April 10 1968 at 00 degrees 00 minutes Latitude; 105 degrees 00 minutes East longitude on board “USS Quapaw” (ATF-110) reveille was held at the usual time. We awoke to find the ship laid-to, astraddle the palpable line. Thick hot air hung over the ship. It was uncommonly still that morning on a dead flat sea. Whiffs of sizzling bacon, eggs, grits, hash browns and fresh-brewed coffee wafted from the galley; that was breakfast for the shellbacks. Breakfast for the polliwogs, which was served to us by the shellbacks (again to the best of my recollection) consisted of a single green pea, no more than a square inch of dry burnt toast, and a teaspoon or so of cold black coffee. Afterwards, while the shellbacks enjoyed their leisurely breakfast, most of us polliwogs got shoved into the forward hold wearing only our skivvy shorts and then began the long wait for the shellback’s fun to begin. There was no ventilation in that watertight hell-hole, so as the equatorial sun beat down on the steel deck above our heads, we slow-roasted like a flock of plucked chickens roosting on a rotisserie. Now a civilian might wonder how it could be possible that only twenty or so shellbacks were able to subdue about fifty polliwogs and then subject them to such inhumane treatment without any resistance whatsoever. Suffice it to say, there are well-kept secrets and guarded shellback tactics passed down through generations of seafarers who have gone through the initiation that have, through time, proven to succeed against any resistance. Though I am in fact a shellback, I am not being coy about this, for I crossed the equator only once, and the secret tactics are not revealed to new shellbacks until right before the crossing. Around noon the hatch-cover was briefly lifted, just long enough to release one desperate polliwog, and at the same time admit a flash of sunlight and a gulp of fresh air for the rest of us, who were, at this point, on the verge of a raging claustrophobic breakdown. Then under the full weight of several sadistically exuberant shipmates who had not a clue about such niceties as heat-stroke, it was slammed shut again and dogged down. This went on the whole morning. The brain-melting heat in that cramped hold was almost unbearable. With no idea what mischief awaited us on deck, as soon as that hatch-cover cracked open, out popped one more squinting, gasping polliwog into the bright sunlight and a deck full of demons. Finally it was my turn. Free at last! I scrambled up the ladder and shot out of the hatch and there abruptly received a sharp stinging whack across my backside with a three-foot length of salt-water-stiffened fire hose. "Git your head down polliwog scum, crawl you miserable bastard!" Some of them were brand new shellbacks--the same guys who an hour earlier had been cooped up with the rest of us in the hold. Now they turned on there own mates. It was like the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” A gauntlet of harpies whipped me as I crawled aft down the portside deck, all the way to the fantail on my hands and knees, scraping my knees raw on the non-skid deck paint. I had entered an Hieronymus Bosch painting. All the strange boxes and other contraptions had been put to cruel use as medieval torture devices. My former shipmates had been transformed into cackling sadists. King Neptune himself presided with regal authority over the whole miserable affair. Striking a remarkable resemblance to our chief electrician, Desert Charlie, he sat on a makeshift throne, trident in hand surveying his aquatic domain. Next to him, sheltered from the sun by a dainty parasol, stood the "Queen of the Deep," her pretty "mop" falling to her shoulders in wavy curls. She resembled a female version of our very own ship’s storekeeper. For every stolen glimpse I was issued another stinging whack. "Head down you filthy polliwog!" An unseen hand shoved my head through a toilet seat stanchion, which held me fast while the royal barber shaved my head down to the scalp, leaving a few random patches of hair, which gave my head the appearance of a badly mowed lawn. A bucket of seawater was thrown in my face and I was hustled off to the beauty salon for a beauty "facial." It was the wooden pillory. Once the polliwog was locked into it, several raw eggs, one for each offense accumulated during the previous weeks, were "applied" to his face, special "aged" eggs being reserved for the more recalcitrant polliwogs. The presiding judge read from a list of offenses posted on a board next to the pillory and determined the appropriate punishment for each crime as the remorseful polliwog pleaded for leniency from Neptune’s court. None was given. Vengeful shellbacks wound up for a pitch at the grimacing polliwog’s face. One shellback stood next to the pillory so he could "gently" rub in each egg for the exfoliating eggshell treatment. I don't remember how many eggs I took, but I do remember the burn and sting of the rub. My face was red for a week. After having been made presentable it was time to meet the royal family. On to the receiving line. Still crawling about on my hands and knees in line with the other initiates, I looked up, and there sat the biggest, ugliest, filthiest baby I'd ever seen. The repulsive infant, clad only in a large diaper, reminded me of our XO, LTjg Remmers, and it appeared that he had messed himself. Slathered all over his enormous belly was a thick layer of grease, polliwog hair, and who knew what else. "Kiss the royal baby, pollywog." Bracing myself against the command to put my lips to the hideous mountain of goo was the cue for the shellbacks to shove my face deep into it. Several hands held me fast until the Royal Baby felt that he'd been sufficiently kissed. Now what would a royal party be without a banquet? The polliwogs were all invited to dine at Neptune's buffet. It was the long wooden box of rotting galley waste! The shellback hosts offered selections from the menu; Polliwog Puke soup, followed by Salisbury steak aged to perfection in a maggot marinade. Despite not having eaten since the previous day, I assured my hosts that I wasn't the least bit hungry. They insisted. A man-sized hole had been sawed in each end of the box and the lid had been nailed down. I quickly reasoned that a skinny agile fellow like myself (I was called Spiderman for the way I flew up and down ladders) could make it all the way through in a flash. I took a deep breath as the shellbacks shoved me in. What happened next ranks as the most revolting experience of my life. A gate was lowered halfway through, and they blocked the entrance as well, so that I couldn’t back out. There was no escape! I tried to yell, but instead of words coming out of my mouth, I only puked vomit. I threw-up repeatedly as had those before me. Then the gate rose, slowly, but not all the way mind you, just high enough above the vile soup that I could glimpse the other end. Daylight shone at the exit, and smiling faces. The only way out was under the gate. This putrid trough was the place where Polliwog innocence was lost--the passage to the outer realm. I drew a deep breath and plunged deep into the muck. It was dark, warm, and moist. Wriggling like the scum sucking polliwog I was, I slithered under the gate to the other side, then I lunged out through the exit hole and flopped gasping onto the deck. Like a big slippery frog I leapt to my feet, gasping for air as my shipmates laughed and hosed me off me in a refreshing spray of seawater. I was now a shellback. It was all over for me, but not for everyone. The newborn shellbacks, like hatchling reptiles, came out snapping. One by one they joined the frenzy. God help the last man through. I looked around in amazement at the sadistic orgy. Then I noticed a lone grim figure accompanied by a number of shellbacks, inching towards the fantail, like a helpless beast being dragged to its doom by hungry jackals. It was some poor soul in full deep-sea diving gear; big brass helmet, rubberized canvas suit with weight belt, and heavy lead boots. Peering out through the little round windows on the front and sides of the helmet were the terrified eyes of LTjg P.S. Dolan, the very last polliwog. He had been made to plod around the deck all day long in his one-man prison, in that merciless heat. Mister Dolan was then lead over to a group of new shellbacks who were just finishing up the last of the polliwogs. They pulled him from his oven-like diving suit and threw the half-roasted man to the mob, in whose hands he suffered the same indignities as the rest of us, but with the added zeal of the newly anointed. And this being the show's last act, his ordeal reached the zenith of the shellback’s cruel arts. For the Grand Finale, the hapless Mr. Dolan was stuffed into the box that now hung ominously by a heavy line from the seaplane boom. The big padlock was clicked shut. Then when all the shellbacks started chanting together, "over the side, over the side," the coffin-like box was hoisted high into the air. As the wooden box swayed towards the side, all hell broke loose, as if a wild animal had gone berserk inside of it. We all froze in dumb awe at the hair-raising spectacle. Then like a great Jack-in-the-box, the panic-stricken Mr. Dolan exploded right through the wooden lid. His smirk gone at last, the ghastly expression on his face was testament to the complete transformation of the last lowly polliwog. Mr. Dolan's initiation finally brought the festivities to an exhausted conclusion. As twilight settled over the equator we enjoyed a rare but refreshing swim in the sunset. I drifted out a ways and contemplated the ship from a distance. She floated motionless as the last red sliver of sun slipped beneath the placid surface of the darkening sea. Voices skipping across the water were soft now, laughter gentle, the glowing portholes homey. We enjoyed a late dinner that evening, then started up the “Quapaw’s mighty engines and set a course for Singapore. Chapter Fourteen It was on en route to Singapore, I believe, that we witnessed the battle between the giant squid and the sperm whale. Perhaps someone had a camera handy that day and snapped the only extant photograph of a living giant squid. There had been plenty of time for all that shellback nonsense, it being Navy tradition, but not for anything that smacked of observing nature or other curiosities. Sailors are like long haul truckers. They know where they're going and how long it takes to get there. They possess an intimate knowledge of their ship and they can tell you what to expect at the next port, but they'll never stop on the way just to take in the scenery. Only a few times in the two years I spent on board that ship do I recall stopping for swim-call, which was an absolute thrill in the open ocean. The crew was kept constantly busy at sea as well as in port so as to not create the impression that they were on some kind of holiday cruise; it was bad for morale—lollygagging. Often even well deserved liberty was suspended for no other purpose than to remind the crew that liberty was a privilege—not a right. In Operations it was our department head, Mister Dolan who was especially fond of stopping a sailor as he was about to cross the gangway, freshly showered in his crisp white uniform, for a night of liberty and then order him to polish all the bright-work on the bridge and, “swab the thwart ships passageway while you’re at it Ras.” You could catch up with his buddies later unless “Dippy” could think up something else for you to do. Whenever we crossed the international dateline we either gained a day or lost a day depending on the direction. Going east you cross into tomorrow so if you do it on Monday let's say, you lose Tuesday. Traveling the other direction you would pick-up an extra Tuesday. Or maybe it's the other way around with the East being yesterday. Still confusing after all these years. Anyhow, once we crossed on a Sunday and the Captain had the option of giving us two Sundays--normally on Sundays all we had to do was stand regular watches, but instead of decreeing an additional Sunday, he made the Blyhe-like decision to designate the day Monday--giving us two extra work days by skipping Sunday altogether. That still doesn't seem to make sense--maybe it was three Mondays we got stuck with. You figure it out As our department head, “Dippy” Dolan gleefully decided that it was a perfect day for a thorough cleaning of the after-steering compartment. It was Operation's unpleasant responsibility, there being a steering wheel in the hot greasy little room. Four of us junior Ops-guys sweated out the afternoon in the insufferable heat on what was in fact a "Sunday" afternoon when the chipper Dippy showed up to inspect our efforts. "How're you boys doing down here?" Unlike most of the crew, he had grown up in privilege and was accustomed to the easy life. For him it actually was a pleasure cruise. He tinkled a large perspiring tumbler of ice tea from the officer's galley. "Just swell, Sir." "I don't know how you boys can stand this heat," he chirped over his shoulder on his way out. And he wondered why he suffered so at the equator. Mister Dolan was also a navy diver-- undoubtedly aspiring to the Lloyd Bridges frogman, role model. Not to take anything away from the elite divers--dive school was a grueling program. A small percentage of sailors volunteered for the school. A smaller percentage of those were accepted, of whom only another percentage actually completed the program and became Navy divers. Few of their dives were of the picturesque, Hawaiian vacation variety either. On dive days I did not begrudge the man anything--hell I’d have served him ice tea myself. As the only US Navy ship in Singapore harbor, we were somewhat of a novelty and for once received a proper degree of hospitality, instead of the usual "Sailors and dogs keep off the grass" treatment. Some Minor dignitaries visited, an occasion for which we happily spiffed up the old tub. I hit the beach with a new deck-ape named Mayer and we hired a trishaw pedaled by a skinny little Chinese man for a tour of the fascinating city. We gave him a break, against his protestations, and pushed him and his clunky old tricycle up some of the steeper streets. It seemed to have humiliated him in the face of the other trishaw drivers who pointed and laughed, but we had neither the heart, nor the patience and hurriedly shoved the trishaw all the way to the top of one of the highest hills in the city. There we discovered a fabulous view, and a coin-operated telescope. The immense city spread out below as far as our keen look-out eyes could see. A teaming labyrinth of streets, alleyways, sidewalks, and canals was jammed with people of every creed and nationality and color weaving busily like so many little ants through and through the slums and high-rises and temples and markets and factories and other buildings of every type and size. They walked on foot and pushed and road and drove every conveyance imaginable. Across the expansive harbor, boats and ships of every kind and for every purpose appeared as numerous as stars in the heavens. I put in a coin and aimed the telescope at the dead center of it all and peered through the eyepiece. And what did I see? There, in the middle of all of that varied humanity, stood a lone tiny white figure. Well actually it neither stood nor was it truly white. It was Garceau, a bilge rat from our ship, and he weaved and stumbled down the street, knee-walkin’ drunk in the middle of the afternoon, and it looked like he had already been on the ground a few times in his tropical dress whites, forgetting as sailors generally do, that he was an emissary of the United States of America. Would they still like us tomorrow? The other tourists had no idea what the irreverent American sailors found so comical about the great city laid out below. On the way back down the cobbled street, the human motor reversed himself and became the human brake. "Stop there. Wait for us here." Click, click, click. More pictures to send home--proof that we had in fact joined the Navy to see the world and were indeed seeing it. The trishaw driver waited for us while we investigated a spectacular temple. We didn't know what sect it was or anything, just thought it would make a great snapshot. We entered the main part of it and were snapping away with our expensive Japanese cameras when everyone started shouting at us in a foreign language. We put our cameras away figuring that it wasn't cool to take pictures and nodded apologetically. Then an angry crowd surrounded us, pointing at the floor. We were the only ones standing in the middle of a large mosaic circle directly beneath the center of the enormous glittering dome, which, judging by the mood of the crowd, must have had some sacred significance. Adios amigos! Hot-footing it back to the trishaw we noticed a couple of unusual characters coming up fast behind us. Two tall stern looking fellows dressed entirely in blue, with blue turbans, had their hands on the handles of long curved sheathed knives that hung from blue cloth belts tied around their waists and they were trying to catch up with us without being conspicuous about it. We tried to inconspicuously run for our lives and when we broke into a full sprint they did too. The trishaw driver must have heard us coming because when we rounded the corner he was already shoving off. He wanted no part of the hornet’s nest we’d just stirred up. But we easily caught up with him and gave the trishaw a good adrenaline-fueled push before hopping in. The yelling blue men gained on us and now they were waving the curved steel blades over their heads. "GO! GO! GO! GO! GO!" The Chinese man’s frantically pumping calves were the size of bananas, but fortunately the street was a steep one, and that saved our necks, and almost killed us at the same time. After narrowly escaping the blue boys we careened down one of Singapore's steepest roads like a runaway shopping cart rolling down San Francisco's Lombard Street. The driver's legs stuck straight out while the pedals whirred around like fan blades. Every cobblestone we rolled over telegraphed up through our bones and into our chattering teeth. Suddenly the trishaw started making worrisome noises, tortured metal sounds--like maybe a wheel or something was coming loose, which is precisely what finally happened. Luckily for us, that didn't happen until after we had slowed down at the bottom of the hill. But unfortunately we skidded to an abrupt stop, quite literally, at the feet of a large, pith-helmeted, mutton-chopped gendarme. He spoke impeccable English and whatever language it was that the trishaw driver jabbered at him while pointing animatedly back and forth between the top of the hill and us. The officer listened patiently, and then translated it all back to us into the exact number of American dollars owed for the accident we had just caused. After forking over most of our cash, we had barely enough left between us to get a couple Singapore Slings at the Raffles Hotel, the birth place of that famous drink. Settling into a pair of wicker chairs we sipped our drinks and studied the splendor of the colonial lounge with its slowly revolving ceiling fans and potted palms. We considered the elegant guests gliding about the marble floors and imagined ourselves to be just like them for the moment, sophisticated travelers, gentlemen among gentlemen. But it was the women, who got the bulk our attention! Those stuffy old men didn't seem to even notice them. Not so us connoisseurs of the opposite sex, and they could see it in the Cary Grant looks we were giving them. Little did they suspect, we convinced ourselves, that we were merely a couple of tugboat sailors on a splurge. On the way out we paused beneath the awning to light up fresh cigarettes and tipped our white-hats to the doorman. "Good evening gentlemen," he intoned with an imperial nod. Indeed. "I say Sir,” turning to my buddy Mayer, “shall we return to our vessel?" Enough of culture--tomorrow it was off to Boogie Street, which we knew about only because of the XO's admonishments against going there, along with other precautions, such as the danger of being Shanghaied in such places. One could acquire on Boogie Street just about anything a soul or body desired, even marijuana. On the drive along the bay under the city lights and the canopy of stars a song played on the cab’s radio, "IF you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair." It was a song about people in motion--a new generation. And here I was, exiled from my own generation, from myself it seemed, roaming a strange land, cruising through stranger seas, without purpose or point, just following orders and the compass. Despite seeing the world, it felt like I was missing something hugely important. Resentment gnawed at me, like rats nibbling at something sweet and leaving only the hard and bitter. I started to wonder what it truly meant to love my country. "Love it or leave it," began to take on a whole new connotation. With many thousands of miles and two and a half years to go, I returned once more to that stinking rust-bucket and its crew of jack-offs. I wrote Christine a long letter about how much I missed her, and about the many things we were going to do some day, when we could begin our life together. "Just wait for me," I asked her, "Keep your love as I left it, please? I'll get back to you--someday." The last night in port my two buddies and I met three girls of three different nationalities at a British nightclub. We were dancing and having a good time with the girls when JJ Mathias suggested we all go to Boogie Street. The girls weren't too keen on it, so we ditched them. At the end of my last night in Singapore I staggered alone into some back-alley bar, beckoned in by the sound of Janice Joplin singing her lungs out. A life-sized inflatable Donald Duck sat next to a Brit at the bar. Both of them stared vacantly at their drinks. A few stools down, another man sat next to Mickey Mouse. Wandering back toward the jukebox, I found a woman mash-potatoing all by herself on a sparking dance floor. I joined her. To my astonishment, this woman, who seemed to be about my age, spoke perfect American English. "Where’re you from," I asked her? "Idaho." “Idaho? Are you kidding me?” That is the last I remember of Singapore--doing the "mash potata" with some woman from Idaho. That was also the last I remember of Parker. His enlistment was up and he went home to Texas. Now I was it. We attached the towline to the floating crane and set course for the Gulf of Siam. Chapter Fifteen Sattahip, Thailand was new territory for the entire crew, so before allowing us to go ashore the XO briefed us on some of the local customs and other pertinent information such as the fact that virtually all of the local girls were infected with exceptionally virulent venereal diseases and, by the way, since we were always subject to the civil laws of our host country, we should know that the penalty for smoking marijuana in Thailand was DEATH. As the only foreign vessel in the little port and the only one larger than a gunboat, the locals welcomed us with gifts of fresh fruit and fish and even offered to sell us some of their livestock. A gregarious gang of half naked children who played on the pier most of the day asked us to trade coins with them and invited us to dive with them from the piers; one of them always stayed out of the water to watch for sharks. The casual atmosphere of the friendly port, which was surrounded by palm trees and little huts tucked into the jungle, had an enchanting effect on the entire crew. Soon we were sharing drinks aboard the gunboats and having our pictures taken with the Thai sailors and the kids. One of the deck apes adopted an orphan monkey and brought it aboard ship, thinking he could take it home. Another crewmember wanted to keep a baby tiger. I teamed up with some of my shipmates and we chipped in on a two-hour drunken cab ride to Bangkok. The driver, being as “stinko” as we were, ran several oncoming vehicles into the ditch while we dared him to go, “faster, and faster." One of my shipmates was on the floor of the back-seat screaming, “We’re going to be killed!” By some miracle we got to Bangkok alive and screeched to a stop at the front door of a massage parlor where a dozen or so girls sat behind a long window on rows of chairs, one above the other. They were all dressed alike in white, like nurses, and they were all beautiful. I pointed to the one with the prettiest smile who then came out with a little basket of towels and lotions, put her hand on my arm and led me to a little room with a window on a garden and closed the door. "You like special massage," she asked? We spent our first day in Bangkok on the sleazy side, just like everywhere else. Next morning, two young seamen failed to make muster, and it wasn't until late afternoon that they staggered down the gangway, after having spent the last 24 hours on the edge of town in a chicken coop, drinking, smoking grass and screwing two local girls. Both of them came down with particularly nasty diseases that kept them restricted to the ship for the rest of the cruise and almost cost one of them his penis. They were considered lucky to have escaped with their foolish lives; eighteen years old and not an atom of useful brain between the two of them. I spent one day in Bangkok by myself seeing the sights and buying gifts for Christine and my family and then meeting up with some shipmates that night for the drive back to the ship. We stopped at a hotel to pick up guy who had been holed up there all day with two girls. "Come in," he shouted when we knocked. He had a big erection and one of the naked girls was leading him across the room with it like she was pulling a wagon. With a big sloppy grin, he pleaded with us "One more time?" The girls were giggling as we slammed the door and went to wait in the cab with our bag of souvenirs. From Sattahip (sans monkey and baby tiger) we steamed back down the Gulf of Siam, and up along the coast of Vietnam for another visit to Danang. April 1, 1968 Hi Love, It's Wednesday night and once again I'm back in my rack, slowly rolling back and forth with the roll of the ship. We're on our way to Danang, and are scheduled to arrive there on Saturday. I think we will stay there for only one day--long enough to pick up another tow to take to Japan. We're already pulling a small refrigerator ship and will have the other tow behind it. It's going to be a slow trip, and cold too. We're all used to tropical climate, but Japan is quite a ways north and is still chilly this time of year. It should be much like home for me. Love, I'm awfully sleepy so I think I'll get some shut-eye. I'll think of you until I fall asleep, then I'll see you in my dreams. I wonder what you're doing now (it's 10:10 Tuesday morning). You’re probably listening to one of your teachers telling the class all about himself. Maybe you're taking a test, or typing. I hope you're thinking of me. Goodnight Honey Next night, Hi love. I just got off watch again. Boy I'm tired of so many watches. Every eight hours I have a four-hour watch--plus a full working day from 8:00 to 4:00. I get off work at 4:00; watch the radar 'til 8:00, sleep until 3:30, then stare at the radar again. What a grind. I may be thousands of miles from you, but I still love and desire you as much if not more than ever. I am always thinking of you, no matter where I am or what I happen to be doing. Well honey it's time for me to say goodnight again and say goodbye to another day. I'm tired. Goodnight Love, Yours always, Charles As the "Mighty Q" lumbered into Danang Harbor dive-bombers swooped into a nearby valley. From about a mile away they looked as harmless as toy airplanes turning figure eights in the hand of an invisible boy dropping make believe bombs onto make believe people in an imaginary jungle. The distant sound of the doppler-shifting pitch of the propellers and the concussion of bombs arriving a few seconds after the flash of light and puff of smoke, contributed to the surreal illusion of a battle seen from afar. Later that day, the heavy cruiser "Newport News" dropped anchor right next to us, then immediately weighed anchor and steamed back out of the harbor. We didn't realize it at the time, but they were making a dry run for a shore bombardment to take place that night. That evening most of the crew was watching a movie on the fantail when without warning all hell broke lose. The Newport News had sneaked back into the harbor under cover of fog and darkness and let loose a withering barrage with her eight-inch guns that lasted all of five minutes. Then there was nothing but silence again as she quietly, invisibly, slipped back out to sea. Her shells had landed on Marble Mountain. The Americans were unaware at the time, that beneath Marble Mountain, right under our noses in fact, was the largest underground Viet Cong hospital in South Vietnam. It went undetected throughout the war--right there in plain sight. At anchor in Danang we had to keep our propeller turning at low revolutions so that sappers couldn't attach limpet mines to it. Two deck watches patrolling for and aft throughout the night tossed hand grenades over the side to keep away the swimmers, which made it awfully hard to sleep, what with the crew's quarters being right at the waterline; It felt like someone was banging on your head all night long with a ball peen hammer. One night a message arrived warning of a probable VC rocket attack, so all ships were ordered to clear out of the harbor. Fog rolled in just as we made preparations to get underway, and at the same time the radar went on the fritz. We were stuck there. I tried my damnedest to get the troublesome old radar working again, while my shipmates waited anxiously for the rockets to come flying in. But they were helping me too up there on the flying bridge, even the Captain, holding down the pages of the technical manual against the cold wet wind, shining the red flashlights and going for tools and spare parts. I worked frantically throughout the night, but when the sun came up and the alert was over I still toiled on the radar--alone. I felt like I'd let everybody down--like they couldn't count on me anymore. The fog, which had hampered our escape, had also concealed us from the Viet Cong, so there had never been any real danger after all, but that didn't ease my conscience; I had failed my shipmates and put them at risk. I didn’t feel too good about that. Eventually I got the radar running, as I always did, and plotted a course out of Danang Harbor with it as we departed Vietnam for Japan. A few days out from Danang we were steaming through the Straits of Formosa when we ran headlong into a typhoon. For three extremely unpleasant days we battled an onslaught of torrential winds and white capped waves coming at us with the vengeance of a thousand furious gods. It was the only time I can remember the entire crew getting seasick. All the portholes and doors were dogged down tight and the hatches battened against the weather. This made the “Quapaw” stuffy and claustrophobic as putrid vomit splattered the passageways and dripped down the ladders between decks. The helmsman steered with a bucket tied around his neck. If you weren't on watch you found a place somewhere to put you head down, it being almost impossible to work unless it was absolutely essential. Sometimes you’d just lay on the deck somewhere, wedged into a corner so as to not roll round. In the berthing compartment, anyone not lashed to their rolling and pitching bunks risked getting tossed onto the oily deck. Diesel fuel sloshing back and forth in the tanks below seeped through leaky seals and the rancid fumes hissed into the air of our cramped sleeping quarters. After most of the wind had subsided the heavy seas continued pounding on our ship for several more days. The rugged old “Quapaw” plowed determinedly through wave after surging wave, her bow rearing high into the air (you could almost float free of the deck at the apex) and then plunging down deep into green water, all the way up to the bridge. The ship and her crew groaned together against the strain. It was at times like these that we remembered how old the “Quapaw” was and we often wondered aloud if perhaps the old girl wasn’t growing brittle as she neared the untrustworthy age of thirty. On the other hand it was reassuring to know that this was not the venerable old lady’s first experience with rough weather. After while we grew accustomed to the rollercoaster ride and eventually settled into a state of giddy euphoria, similar to the lightheadedness induced by amusement park rides. At random intervals the big waves stacked up on each other and then we’d get blindsided by a monster that would throw the dinner crew and their trays into a crashing heap against the mess-deck bulkhead; some of the crew cursed about it while others simply laughed at the chaotic slapstick. In seas of that nature most of us didn't feel much like eating anyhow. Down in the crew’s head, seawater surged back up through the drainpipes and shot wastewater up our asses with the force of a fire hose. We learned to gauge the time for dismount precisely and jumped up at the first telltale gurgle, whether or not disconnect had occurred--it being better to get messed with one’s own crap than somebody else’s. Every man had to experience, first hand, what became a tremendous source of amusement for all, and no one wanted to spoil any opportunity for fun by a friendly warning. Of course not. It was all part of learning the ropes. We had long since lost our propriety along with our modesty way back there at the assholes and eyebrows. Then the electronics started breaking down. What a nightmare that was, working on electronic circuitry when I could barely stand. It was nauseating work, not to mention downright dangerous. Immediately after breakfast, weather permitting, the crew always met on the fantail for the morning muster. As the Quapaw pitched and rolled back and forth and side to side, department heads read the “Plan of the Day” to the assembled sailors as they swayed to and fro on gimbaled ankles in synchronous motion with the ship and the sea. Beneath our firmly planted feet the ship rose on the great swells then sank deep into the hollow troughs, ceaselessly up and down day and night until we were as accustomed to it as the in and out of breathing. A day south of Japan one of the enginemen fell gravely ill. His appendix had burst. Without immediate surgery he would surely die. Normally the “Quapaw” cruised at standard speed, which was around eighteen knots, but this emergency called for the fastest "flank" speed. We were now cutting through the waves as fast as the four main engines could possibly shove the old tub. I had just gotten relieved from the mid-watch and was in my blessed bunk about thirty seconds away from conking out and joining the rest of the snoring chorus when we hit something big and solid. It felt like the 3” 50 cal. had gone off right under my bunk. Then the ship started shaking so violently that it seemed like the rivets were going to pop right out of her skin. We had hit something hard enough to break off one of the four blades of the huge bronze propeller but with no time to stop and see what it was, we simply reduced speed to one-third and kept right on course--whump, whump, whumping as we went along, all the way into Yokasuka. There the sick crewmember was hurriedly boated ashore and then jeeped over to the infirmary for an appendectomy. Meanwhile the Quapaw pulled into a flooded dry-dock for repairs to the broken propellor. It had been over a month since we swam with the Thai children in the warm tropical waters of Sattahip. Now in Japan it was the middle of winter and bitter cold. But by this time the crew was getting a bit squirrelly from all those rough and stormy weeks and the shipboard confinement. Any one of us would have killed just to get off that broken-down wreck for a few hours. So as soon as the ship was securely tied, those crewmembers not on watch headed straight for the showers. And then we pulled out those nearly forgotten winter dress blues and rubbed out the wrinkles. We deftly rolled our black silk scarves and neatly tied them in perfect square knots around our fresh-shaved necks. We touched-up our spit-shined dress shoes and then, at the piping of liberty call, we threw on our pea coats, screwed down our white-hats and gaily tramped down the gangway like a flock of penguins waddling to shore for a night of merriment. A light snow fell that evening, muffling the street sounds and diffusing the bright colorful lights of the bar district, but the fleet was in and the streets and back alley honky-tonks were already brimming with rowdy sailors looking for a good time, or just about any excuse at all for a fight. My mates and I passed one bar as a huge black sailor stumbled blindly through a doorway with blood streaming down his face. His nose had been nearly knocked off and flapped over grotesquely onto his cheek. Several fights had broken out in other bars along the street. We stopped long enough to light cigarettes and then headed for a quieter scene. Several little cups of hot saki, a bowl of sukiyaki and a dip in the “hotsi baths” was just the beginning of a night on the town that eventually ended in a bar brawl for us as well, and it all started over a Zippo lighter. Christine had sent it to me inscribed for my birthday and I had absentmindedly left it at the bar when I went to sit at a table with by buddies. One of the girls pointed to the bar tender who had slipped it into his pocket. In the process of retrieving my Zippo from behind the bar, a brawl broke out that cost me a trip to the local police station for starting it. I paid the fine that was levied against me for the damage caused and returned to the ship late that night without a yen left over. Just another juvenile excuse for a fight but to this day I have the lighter. Yokasuka provided some of the best liberty of the cruise, which included excursions to Yokohama and Tokyo. Sasebo, Japan was the last port we hit before heading back to Pearl. Aside from its nickname "Knobber Town," it was also known as the "Home of the big PX" where cameras and stereos could be purchased for a fraction of the stateside price. Those who had managed to save any money on the cruise went on shopping sprees, buying such commodities for themselves, and shipping souvenirs home to loved ones. It was late January of 1968, not long after the U.S. spy-ship "Pueblo," had been attacked and captured by North Korean gunboats after having ventured too close to North Korea. The Quapaw was placed on 24-hour standby as part of a scheme to rescue her. The plan was for us to steam into Wonsan Harbor under the protective cover of a carrier battle group, attach our towing line to the Pueblo as she lay tied to a pier, rip her loose, and tow her out to sea. For several weeks we waited for orders in "Knobber Town" under strict orders not to discuss the mission with anyone due to its international sensitivity. Feelings were mixed about attempting such a dangerous mission: a mixture of bravado and fear, but also genuine courage. Those are powerful forces, which can drive determined young men to almost any task: heroes to be sure no matter what the outcome. And this was precisely that kind of heroic achievement we had all dreamed of as little boys. Now was our chance to prove to ourselves and to the world that we had what it takes—that we were men who could do great things when duty called, just like our fathers had done before us and their fathers before them. We waited, anxious and willing for the call. But once again, to mixed feelings of disappointment and relief, the plan was scrapped. The mighty “Q” and its ready and able crew did not get the glorious call that might have put us in the history books and in the end the crew of the Pueblo was held in a North Korean prison for eleven dreadful months. We had been at sea a half year and now, having travelled those many thousands of miles, we were as eager to return to Pearl as we had been to depart six months earlier. I had already turned in a request chit for leave, asking for thirty days as soon as we got back to Pearl. I hadn't been home in a year and a half and letters to Christine were beginning to sound like the same old stack of records. A year is an excruciatingly long time when you're young. The younger you are the longer it is; everyone knows that. And the younger you are the more you change in a year. In these pages that time seems not that long at all, since I have condensed the perception of it by touching on only the highlights. Iv’e skipped the many long, tedious and boring days that typify military life. And there is also much that I have forgotten decades later. Oh that time did go slowly, and time can do so much. Christine and I were both changing, but we wouldn't realize just how much until we saw each other again. The trip back to Pearl was barely memorable enough to inspire a paragraph: a ship full of bedraggled sailors slogging their way back home. We were several days in Subic, but I was too busy with repairs to even get off base. Didn't really want to either; I was counting on leave in a few weeks and now that was all I could think about. And so as to not return to our home port with the Mighty “Q” looking like the grimy swayback workhorse she was, we laid-to a day out of Oahu and scrubbed the old nag all the way from her pointy nose back to her big fanny. Two deck seaman were working away on a plank hung over the side, scrubbing the hull with brushes and scouring compound, when an enormous whale shark came up to the surface to investigate. It was as large as a small submarine, slow moving and greenish gray with black spots, and it was absolutely harmless. But, fearful of being swallowed by the huge fish, the deck apes wasted not a micro-second in scampering back up topside. And then, against universal protest, the pigheaded Bo’s’n's Mate, determined not to let some damned fish interfere with important ship's work, decided to heroically lob a few leftover hand grenades at it and in the process of demonstrating his complete lack of basic human kindness, he very likely inflicted serious injury on the curious but gentle creature. Shocked by such sudden rudeness, the terrified beast quickly turned away and disappeared. Another natural wonder observed with typical military callousness and shocking disregard. The boys climbed back down over the side and continued the fresh-water wash-down, all the while keeping a watchful eye for other sea-monsters. Boats had pulled the pins like john Wayne--with his teeth, and then pissed and moaned about a broken tooth, like maybe he thought he should get a purple heart or something for his injury. He was still complaining about it weeks later back in Pearl as if he were just trying to keep the tail end of the cruise alive in a small way, but it was over--finished. Chapter Sixteen Back at Pearl Harbor all of the same women were standing there on that same concrete pier, under the sparkling Hawaiian sun just like they had been waiting in that very spot the whole time we were gone. No doubt they entertained similar thoughts about us as we eased up to our berth, home again at last with that other world left far behind and now eager as ever to get cleaned-up and escape once more from the claustrophobic confines of the ship and our all-too-familiar mates. Time to hit the Hawaiian beach and live again. Mister Dolan denied my request for leave and acted like I had asked for my discharge papers and a private yacht for Christ's sake. There were many ahead of me, he said, some who hadn't been granted leave in two years. Who did I think I was anyway? Thirty days a year, that's right--at the discretion of superiors. It was just more petty bullshit. I guessed I hadn't been kissing enough ass--that was all. With two more years and a few months to go, I was ready to jump that god damned slave ship. One advantage of being back at Pearl was that we received regular mail again. In one of her letters, Christine mentioned that she had lost a pearl ring that I had given her and she was quite upset about it. That night I had an amazing dream. I found her ring in the dream and placed it on my little finger for safekeeping. When I awoke in the morning, I was flabbergasted to feel a ring on my little finger right where I had placed it in the dream. Incredulous, I focused my half-awake eyes on the ring and then watched it slowly transform into a shiny aluminum pull-tab from a soda can. Silly, but I took it as an omen and the next time I had liberty I went shopping for a new ring, but this time instead of a pearl I bought the biggest diamond I could afford and sent it off to my future wife. We'd decided to wait at least until she was out of high school before we got officially engaged, but now the ring was ready even if we were not. Another summer in paradise drew to an end. Still stuck aboard the old workboat, I whiled away the weeks and months of my twenty-first year. Had I gone into the army when I got drafted, I would be free by now--or dead. And if I'd told Uncle Sam to stick it--well who knows. But from here on out I was paying off the interest on the cost of avoiding the war. In September the ship would be going into the yards for servicing, so once again I prevailed upon my superiors for a month’s leave. It seamed a good time to ask, given that the ship wouldn’t even be in the water for several weeks; fat chance the lone ET would get a break once we got underway again. This time my request was approved. I could hardly believe it. I was going home for a whole month. Hell it seemed like forever. July 14,1968 Dearest Christine. Hi Love. I'm up on the bridge listening to KPOI. I just finished my Planned Maintenance Schedule for the next three months. I had completely forgotten about it in my excitement about going on leave. Bob Boles came back off leave Friday night, three days early. He thinks he and his wife are going to have a baby now. Hmmm, I'm not getting very far with this letter. I just sat here for one solid hour staring off at nothing, thinking of you. My thoughts are always with you. You have a sort of presence in me. How I love you Christine. I have a letter in front of me. The one asking me what I think about getting married in September. I'd love to get married in a minute Christine, but I still think we should wait until next summer. I realize what one more year will be like, but we can tough it. Don't you think it would be better if we waited? One thing for certain, while I'm still in the Navy we aren't going to a "have a little baby--A girl mostly." You're going to be a mother for a long time so don't rush things. We are going to enjoy our baby no matter when it arrives, preferably later. Meanwhile let's be satisfied with each other. Besides I'd rather be there when it all takes place rather than in Subic Bay. You know what I think would be awfully nice? If you came to Hawaii for Christmas. We could have a wonderful week or two here before I leave for the West Pac. It would be only three months after I came back from leave, just enough to keep us until next summer, when we get married. Then after our honeymoon we could live together here until I leave again for a cruise, after which I will come home for good. What do you think Love? I want to do what is best, and I want you to be happy too. The longest we'll ever have to be apart again is the six months I spend overseas. Well honey I guess I should go make some Zs. Remember when I told you about a recurring dream in which I'm hurrying home, only to have to turn around and hurry back again. Well since I found out I'll be taking leave I haven't dreamed it once. I sure am happy. 'Night Love, Charles Christine had finished high school and was now looking forward to college. She wasn’t sure where to go or even what to do next, but she was sure eager to get out of sweet little Toledo. I faced two more years at sea. For now, we just wanted to live for the moment, enjoy our month together and get to know each other once again. When I left this time it would be for another year--probably longer, and we both felt that another year apart would be more than we could handle. I stayed at her family’s house while we spent the weeks doing as we had always done—counting the precious days. One day Christine's mom Jane offered to wash and press my entire sea bag. Like I said, she was a peach. She found a folded slip of paper with the name Annette and a Philippine address written on it in perfect penmanship. "Is this something you need," she asked without a trace of guile? I wadded it up and tossed it in the trash. "No, it's nothing," I said. With five days of leave remaining we drove down the Yaquina River to watch the sun set and ended up talking all night long about everything that was on our minds. I wanted her to come to Hawaii. Her family was against it, mainly her grandmother, who tried her best to encourage our dwindling patience. Granny thought we were too young; after all we still had college and our entire lives to not rush into. Love is blind, and it is also deaf, especially in the young, when the desire to be together defies wisdom. But young love is also determined, even more so in a time of war, as Sophocles wrote, “to free us of all the weight and pain in life.” But it was from the absence of love itself that we suffered, not the pain of life, for we had hardly gotten to know that, and we were desperate now to have what we had wanted for so long. My shipmates were getting married right and left, sometimes foolishly it seemed, to girls they barely knew. It was important to have a woman waiting, to pine for during the long months at sea; to have a loving place to leave one’s heart. To have nothing to call your own was bad enough, to have no one to love was worse. To be alone was to have no home, no future, no dreams and no longings beyond those basic desires that could be easily gratified in any port. Looking back now I can see that we were impatient and naïve, but I will forgive us the impatience of youth, for I believe now as we must have feared then, that had we waited we would have lost each other. "We could get married," one of us said. I don’t remember which; it doesn't matter. We had talked about it many times in letters--”wouldn’t it be nice?” Lately though it had come to seem more like a hopeless fantasy, then in an instant it became the most real thing in our lives. “YES,” we said! It was well after midnight when we raced back to town to wake up our parents with the news. Christine was a week away from eighteen, I was twenty-one and absolutely no one could stop us now. When such a wish is expressed to the world, an engine is set in motion with all of its gears turning to that purpose, stoppable only by death or deceit, rarely by reason. Life wants to unite in order to create itself anew. Three days later we stood together in Toledo’s tiny Episcopal Church and got married with everyone's blessing, including Granny's. She finally conceded under pressure from her husband of fifty years. "Dear, let the kids have what they want." I think there was an "Or else," added for good measure. Three days later I arrived back at the “Quapaw,” surprising my shipmates with the news. A few of my closest friends were not as shocked as I was, having come back to reality, but I had a whole new outlook and bristled at a stern remark from the Mr. Dolan that I should have formally requested permission to marry. Screw the bastards; they didn't own me, and my wife was none of their damned business. As a married man I believed that I had risen above their petty concerns and deserved a little more consideration. I rented a little one-bedroom apartment in Waikiki on the Alliwai canal and stocked the closet with Muumuus and bikinis. "Don't bring anything,” I wrote, “just yourself." Three months together in Hawaii, and then the ship would be going on another WestPac. Christine made plans to sublease the apartment and return to Oregon while I was away, and then we’d spend my final year of enlistment shore-bound while the ship was in the yards at Pearl undergoing a complete overhaul--that was the plan. At last we had real future. Christine had never been away from home, and she was pretty anxious about the big move. I was accustomed to living out of a sea bag so when dozens of boxes started arriving straight away I got a little anxious myself. Unlike me, she was very organized and had numbered every box according to a growing list of "essentials." "Don't open anything," she said. When I picked up one of the boxes, a corner broke open and about a hundred pencils spilled out of it. She shipped every wedding gift from the toaster to the wool blankets; so this is married life. My new bride arrived two days before a Soviet trawler/spy ship showed up a few miles off Diamond Head, and as always we were sent out to shadow it. Our orders were to follow it until it reached the boundaries of U.S. territorial waters, then break off and return to port, but only after radioing permission from SERVRON5 headquarters first. The Ruskies headed northwest and we followed. When we entered international waters the radiomen fired up the AN/UCR-32, the only transmitter we could use for sending encrypted messages. It blew up. Two vacuum tubes that boost the power to two thousand watts had overheated and fried everything around them. I rebuilt the entire section while we continued to follow the Soviet trawler. By the next day I had finished repairing the damage, and I'll be damned if it didn't blow again. This time I figured out what the problem was; I remembered an offhand remark from Parker. "When you close this unit make sure those two air hoses line up behind the power amp tubes or they'll overheat and blow." That was all, through a cloud of smoke. I wasn't paying attention and now I paid the price. I didn't have any more spare tubes, so it looked like we’d be following the Soviet ship all the way to Vladivostok. Using another voice transmitter I radioed Pearl for some new tubes. Several hours later a watertight canister descended from the sky, swinging beneath a parachute. When it splashed down the deck apes plucked it from the sea with a boat hook. "This better be it Ras," admonished the captain. It was tough being the only ET. The constant stress of being responsible 24 hours a day for all of the ship’s electronics taxed me to the limit. Rarely did I get enough sleep, many times working to exhaustion on complex and exasperating equipment. Being out in the middle of the ocean for months at a time and expecting that at any given moment I could be summoned to deal with an electronic meltdown, created for me a prolonged sense of anxiety, one that that still affects me to this day. I spent two years at sea with the constant feeling that I was not up to the task, that I was winging it, that I was always on the verge of utter failure. But there was one advantage to being the lone technician--no one ever knew when I screwed up. They thought I was some kind of genius, and I had once again saved the day. And it wouldn't be the last time either. The Quapaw wasn't so much a prison anymore as just an unpleasant job with long erratic hours and occasional days away from home. I apologized to Christine for the life we were leading, such as it was. "Charles," she wisely said, "we'll look back at these days as the happiest of our life." In our cozy honeymoon home I felt like the luckiest man alive. We didn't have much, just each other, which was all we needed or wanted. We had wonderful neighbors and lots of friends from the ship and their wives. Christine became friends with a woman who seemed to be related to every native on the island; it was acceptable to the Hawaiians to be a sailor if you had a wife. A couple in their late fifties named Ernie and Edna Franken, who lived next door to us, were semi-retired and planning a South Pacific cruise in their sailboat and they invited us to join them when my enlistment was over. Things were really looking up. As often as I could, I would pay someone a few bucks to take my duty and stand my in-port watch. I still had college money in the bank, which helped. Life rolled along just like the gentle surf on Waikiki beach. One day we threw a party and invited the “Quapaw” crew. I was pleasantly surprised to discover how civilized my shipmates could be when they wanted. For Christmas we decorated a little fir tree in the corner of our living room with ornaments from box number 20 something. The only quarrel I can remember was about sending Christmas presents to everyone back home. Christine wouldn't have any of my Scrooginess. As the tree twinkled, we lay next to it on the floor and watched little green geckoes scurry across the ceiling. Our house.... Life used to be so hard. Soon after New Years the Quapaw crew was gearing up for the coming West Pac. Aboard ship we went through the same routine as the previous year. I was pressing for a couple more ETs--No way did I want to go it alone out there again. Christine was busy with her own stores, preparing for her "East Pac," eager to be going home for a while. The next half-year would be a cinch for us, and then smooth sailing. This time I lingered with Christine on the teary-eyed pier until the very last minute. When do you turn your back to the one you love with tears streaming down her pretty face, and head out to sea for several long months? We watched our women grow small and disappear as they watched us vanish over the horizon. I had no way of knowing then what lay ahead--there were no foretelling clouds on the horizon--no ill winds blowing our way. Chapter Seventeen A week or so later the Quapaw pulled into the lagoon at Midway Island. We stayed only long enough to hook up to a floating dry-dock and then headed right back out to sea and set course for Guam, three thousand miles to the West. Heavy winds had picked up--headwinds that would drive against us for the next forty days, impeding our progress to a slow crawl. A man could have walked that distance in less time. Trailing at a quarter-mile or so at the end of our towline, the floating dry-dock was an enormous vessel, two football fields long and wide enough to cradle a heavy cruiser and lift it out of the water. White breakers slammed against its high flat bow as our four American Locomotive engines grunted and clawed at the oncoming sea. The Mighty Q’s cast iron soul was created for such work and she could have chugged on forever, but before long the crew began to break down as a mysterious sickness stalked the men one by one. Our only corpsman didn't have a clue what it was and then he got sick. We were radioing the symptoms to Tripler Hospital in Oahu for a diagnosis when that son-of-a-bitching AN/UCR-32 transmitter broke down. I angrily blamed it this time on the radiomen for tuning it improperly. Until I got it up again, the radiomen would have to use old-fashioned Morse code on another transmitter. It took me three awful days to get the bastard going again and then I fell prey to the illness myself. By the time we got to Guam, half the crew was laid out in their bunks. They quarantined us at anchor in the middle of the harbor for a week or so until the illness ran its course. Some kind of flu I think it was that got us off to a bad start. In Guam we took on two new crewmembers, a Captain to replace Tschida, who was being transferred to Vietnam and, thank God, another ET. Petty Officer 2nd class Jurkovitch. “Great,” I thought, “someone with experience!” The new captain had risen through the enlisted ranks to Lieutenant Commander--a breed of officer known as a mustanger. He was a sailor's sailor, a hard steamin', crusty, barrel-chested salt. He could size up a ship and its crew in a glance. Unlike the soft-spoken, Captain Tschida we had grown accustomed to and respected, Lindstrom was roughly turned. He would take some getting used to, and likewise he would have to earn the crew's confidence. My memory of the change of command is foggy, but unforgettable was the first time we left port under Captain Lindstrom. He leaned over the wing of the bridge bellowing commands back at the helmsman as we pulled out of a slip. It's not like backing a car out of the garage. The slow and idiosyncratic reflexes of a ship require an astute understanding of complex dynamics and the intuitive use of patiently acquired skills. Captain Lindstrom was winging it and everyone felt it in their bones, quite literally, when we ass-ended the ship in the next berth and an awful scraping screech ripped through the air as the crushing momentum of 1500 tons of steel came to a grinding halt. We suffered no serious damage though, just some minor dents and a momentary whiff of scorched paint generated by the sudden friction. The Captain didn't even wave apologetically as we pulled away and headed out to sea. “Hell with 'em." We steadied up on a compass heading for the Philippines on a ship commanded by a man who bumps into things. I swear you could smell Olongopo City two days out--once you knew what it smelled like. I steered clear of the M&B bar for a while, but before long my shipmates and my own curiosity lured me back. Annette was gone, but the two sisters were still there. Whether or not they remained cherry girls was a matter of much speculation. Of Annette, they said she had married an American sailor, "A very nice sailor--from a big ship.” Olongopo, the second time around, had lost much of its mystique and charm. It was, after all, just a squalid little seaport--a stopover, where a ship full of wankers could wet their whistles and get their horns trimmed. We never thought about where the girls went from there--when they got old--or even how they got there in the first place. I think about Annette now and then after all these years and I've always hoped that she did marry a stand-up sailor who took her away from there, instead of the bleak alternative. We spent a week or so in Subic and then got underway for Vietnam and another stint in the Gulf of Tonkin on “Yankee Station”. In the ship's log the Captain left his "standing night orders" to be awakened at midnight, "Or somebody's ass will be grass." And that ass would likely be Ras’s. Seemed like I always got stuck with the unpleasant job; on the radar watch there was usually not a lot going on late at night out in the open sea. "Knock knock." My ear is pressed to the cabin door, but no one answers, just the sound of snoring. "Knock knock, Captain, it's midnight." Still nothing. So I crack the door and poke my head inside. "Captain it’s midnight, Sir." "AAARRR!" "Captain it’s midnight; time to get up.” "Aaaarrr, get the hell out of here." "Captain I'm not leavin' until you’re up." "I'm up God damnit, now get the hell out of here." Then he starts to snoring again. Now here I am yelling at the skipper. "Sir, put your feet on the deck." "Who the hell do you think you’re talking to Sailor?" “Sir, I’m not leaving ‘til you’re awake and on your feet.” Inevitably it turned into a shouting match, but I never left until he got to his feet and chased me out the door. It was better to get yelled at than suffer the consequences of not rousting the old cuss. The guys up on the bridge got a big kick out of it: anything to break the monotony. Later, in the darkened quietude of the bridge the old fart would casually walk by as I brooded at the radar and pat me on the shoulder, “Thanks Ras.” It was the same routine every night. Despite our difference in age and rank a degree of mutual respect developed between the two of us. In a few days we were back on “Yankee Station” again doing the same damned thing as the previous year--ever mindful this time around of similar escapades off North Korea that lead to the "Pueblo" incident. Then one day an urgent message arrived from Pearl; the Captain broke it to me in the solitude of the wardroom. I recognized the look of bad news in the Captain’s eyes before he said a word. He spoke in the same grave tone with which my father had once delivered the news that I would not be going home again to my mother and then again on the day he told me that she had died. Bad news is delivered softly to take the sting out of the hard-hitting words. Captain Lindstrom informed me that I was being transferred from the Quapaw to a shore station in Vietnam--permanently. They needed an ET at the Naval Communication Station at Cam Rahn Bay. It took a moment for it to sink in--the enormity of it all, and then my heart sank all the way down to the bottom of the bilges. Why now, when everything was going so well. "Do you want to go Ras," the skipper asked in such a way that made it sound as if this time I really had a choice in the matter? Does the pig want to go to the barbecue? "No Sir, I don’t." I told him that I was looking forward to my final year back in Hawaii and would appreciate any help he could provide. I would really rather have shed the "monkey suit" and resumed what I viewed as my “real” life, enrolled in college and studied architecture or art, maybe I would have gone to "Woodstock" and rolled around naked in the mud or followed a whim to San Francisco in a VW microbus with a spinning airplane propeller attached to the front of it, Christine at my side smokin' some high-grade reefer and listening to "The Mamas and the Papas" the whole way. No, Cam Rahn Bay, Vietnam was not my idea of a destination point. The Captain assured me that his connections in Pearl Harbor would be able to persuade the higher powers that I was indispensable to the "Quapaw" and that my position onboard the old rust bucket was secure. Flattered and relieved, I felt confident that my final year of service would be shore-bound, settled with my new wife in Waikiki while the Quapaw sat high and dry in a Pearl Harbor dry-dock, just as we had planned. A message was drafted by the CO and radioed to SERVRON FIVE headquarters back in Pearl. A reply came the next day, "A helicopter will be sent to pick up ETN3 Rasmussen." It appeared hopeless until Jurkovitch up and volunteered to go in my place. Boy was I surprised--and immensely relieved. He desperately wanted off that ship and far away from the hard-nosed captain who had taken an immediate and strong dislike to him. Jurkovitch had been in the Navy for four years by this time and he was one full grade above me, but this was his first cruise and it was obvious that he wasn't cut out for sea duty. He was still learning the ropes and the skipper had no intention of making it easy for him. And neither did anyone else for that matter. Jurkovith was better suited to a laboratory somewhere crunching numbers on a slide rule and scratching his Gyro Gearloose head while firmly seated at a desk or standing on a solid unmoving floor. He was constantly stumbling across the ever-shifting decks of the Quapaw and dropping things. Not many of the crew liked him that much. But I did. He was smart but with an easy rather goofy sense of humor and a laugh that many of his shipmates mistook for a vacant mind, which he apparently recognized, but seemed not to care that much, whether or not it helped him fit in. Probably been that way his whole life. He was probably used to it. One night we were riding out a gale when the radar started acting up. The thin green beam started making intermittent jerky sweeps around the scope. It looked to me like a simple mechanical problem with the antenna, which revolved, forgotten until now, at the very top of the wildly swinging mast, more than eighty feet above the water. The Captain ordered Jurkovitch to climb up there, figure out what the problem was and fix it. Mounted above the helm was a simple protractor-like instrument called a clinometer. Its pendulum pointer reflected the angle of the mast as it gauged the roll of the ship at 45 degrees to the port side, then 45 degrees to starboard. We were steaming blindly through treacherous waters, and it was clear that someone had to climb the slippery narrow ladder to the radar platform that night, and it was also quite clear that Jurkovitch was not going to be the one to do it. I had a hunch what the problem was--grease, and though I had been up there numerous times, it was never under such conditions, but I knew exactly where the grease-fittings were. So before Jurkovitch had a chance to infuriate the old man by begging off, I suggested that since I was familiar with the problem, under the circumstances, I should be the one to climb the mast; I wasn’t called Spiderman for nothing. "No, I want Jurkovitch to do it." "Sir, I can't," Jurkovitch stated flatly. "Are you refusing a direct order," the Captain shot back? "Sir I just can not possibly climb up that mast." Jurkovitch was a little overweight and clumsy and I for one had no doubt in my mind that had he attempted the climb that night it would have ended in disaster. And I also believed that the Captain felt the same, but he wanted to shame the man nonetheless. Jurkovitch and I both knew from the outset that I would be the one to go up the mast, but in the end neither of us was happy about it. Inching my way up the vertiginous ladder one rung at a time I held on with all my might as the mast whipped back and forth out over the white caps. I was scared out of my mind, though not as scared as I was of Vietnam; that was the real horror for me. By comparison this was merely a distraction. After two years of grudging service aboard the Quapaw I was now willing to do just about anything to make myself indispensable. The ship had become my home of sorts and the crew my mates and I didn’t want to venture out alone into the dangerous uncharted waters beyond. "Be careful Ras!" the skipper shouted from the flying bridge below. I had to lean out backwards to crawl up through the hole in the radar platform--and I had to do it without the safety line as the "G" forces snapped me from side to side, but I managed to get through the hole and slammed the cover back down over it. Just as I had thought; corrosive effects of the salt spray had reached the top of the mast and had seized-up a bearing. Some minor adjustments and a shot of grease did the trick. Actually now as I am remembering the event, the most harrowing part was crawling back down through the hole and blindly groping for the top rung of the ladder with my feet. After several unsuccessful attempts, I considered riding out the storm up there; another thought that briefly crossed my mind terrified mind was to call a chopper in from the nearest carrier, though I prudently kept that thought to myself. "Take your time son, don't hurry," the old man yelled from below! He didn’t have to tell me that; I was practically paralyzed and the spotlights shining up into my eyes, gave me no way to conceal my terror. In the end I made it down safely. I got a lot of points and back-slaps for that one too. Jurkovitch got a Captain's Mast, resulting in several weeks of hard labor wiping down the bilges. Later I was a witness at what I viewed as the kangaroo-court proceedings of his shipboard trial. He didn’t hold it against me though for making him look bad that night; after all neither of us had any choice in the matter: it was simply our duty. But from then on things got worse between him and the Captain. Ironically I believe that Jurkovitch was the better technician. He was more theoretical and scientific; a real nerd he was and he was a career man as well, at least up to this point he was. But I was well acquainted with all the equipment and I knew it empirically. In time he would become an excellent ET, but the future was not looking good for him at that moment. So it seemed only logical that, my being more useful to the "Quapaw" and with Jurkovitch desiring to go in my place, everyone could be made happy. However, there were many forces driving that war but neither logic nor happiness would deter those immense forces. And I was perhaps useful aboard the Quapaw, but not indispensable. The military is an institution that succeeds by making its members dependent on it—not the other way around. No one is ever indispensable in service to their country. Cemeteries are filled with such indispensable men. And besides the war always got what it wanted and this time the hungry monster wanted me. The bullet I had dodged nearly three years back wasn’t, it turned out, the only one with my name on it. Now I stood directly in the crosshairs with nowhere to turn. It was the first day of April—one of my favorite holidays. On Yankee Station I spent twelve hours every day in the small charthouse just aft of the bridge, wearing a pair of headphones and listening hour after hour for the coded position reports from every US Navy ship operating in the Gulf of Tonkin. We called the little room CIC or the “Combat Information Center.” From 2000 hrs to 0800 hrs I plotted each ships’ location on the chart. The radio transmissions were broadcast in single-side-band, which, simply put, means only half of the carrier wave was used which distorted everything into barely intelligible, tinny, garbled voices, burbling unintelligibly, as if spoken under five fathoms of seawater. Each navy ship in the Tonkin Gulf transmitted their position every hour. Two groups of four code-letters each had to be translated into longitude and latitude and plotted on the days chart. They came as fast as I could decode and plot them for twelve hours straight and it almost drove me insane. This I had to do in addition to my regular eight-hour workday. Also bear in mind all the emergency repairs requiring my services that occurred with perverse frequency and you can quickly see how busy I was. In fact I was probably one of the busiest men aboard ship. BUT I still had time to play an April Fools prank on the man who relieved me every morning in CIC. Dick Cripe was a career radarman. Senior to me, he got to choose the more desirable day watch for himself. And that was all he had to do. The remaining twelve hours he mostly spent sacked out in his bunk reading fuck books. And he had the temerity to complain vehemently when, on occasion, during my watch, I was called upon to make a repair and he was required to relieve me in CIC. He then expected me to make it up to him the next day, even if that meant interrupting what, if I was lucky, amounted to about four hours of sleep. April Fools day was get-even time. I laid out two charts that morning—the real one to be turned in to SERVRON 5 back at Pearl, which I kept accordingly, and my bogus one, on which I had deviously plotted us heading directly toward Hainan Island--CHINA. At 0400 hrs I made my last entry on the bogus chart, which was the one I had spread out on the chart table when Radarman Cripe came to relieve me at 0800 hours. My head was slumped into my folded arms on the chart table amongst the dividers and the parallels and the pencils. I was apparently sound asleep in complete dereliction of my duty. “Jesus fucking Christ Ras, wake up!” I had detuned the LORAN and the radar so he couldn’t get a fix. As far as Cripe was concerned, we were totally lost in the hottest body of water in the world. The best he could do under the circumstances was elbow me out of the way and quickly project the same course and speed we had been on according to my last entries on the chart laid out before him. That heading at four hours put us, by dead reckoning, smack on the beach of Communist Chinese Hainan Island. I yawned. Cripe screamed something bordering on hysterics about the Pueblo and a court martial then ran out to the starboard wing of the bridge where he found the Officer of the Deck peering nonchalantly into the fog through a pair of binoculars and trying to maintain a straight face. The OOD was in on the joke. “Sir, stop all engines. Ras fucked up!” The OOD pretended to be preoccupied as Cripe stamped his feet and waved his arms. We were in shit up to our white hats and no one on the bridge seemed to give damn. Cripe looked like he was about ready to burst into tears. I didn’t have the heart to let it go on any longer, thought he might actually have a heart attack, so I fessed-up and told him it was all a big joke. The lifer, second class Radarman Cripe, did not laugh. It was probably all he could to keep from knocking my head off. In fact he was so mad at me that he refused to shake my hand later that day when I left the ship after serving with him aboard the Quapaw for two long years. Said I thought everything was a big fat joke, including his career—which was true I guess. (Thirty-three years later in 2002 I looked him up and was invited to his house to have dinner with him and his wife in Portland, Oregon. After reminiscing about the good-old days for a while, I brought up the incident. Said he didn’t even remember it.) I spent my final hours aboard the Quapaw rebuilding the charred remains of the antenna tuner for the UC-32 transmitter. In the previous few days three more ETs had arrived by helicopter. That was the Navy way--you never got what you needed until you didn’t need it anymore. They were straight out of school, sharp and eager to help. Jurkovitch and I had the tuner spread out on a mess table and were working like surgeons, with the new ETs at our sides handing us tools and asking questions when someone shouted into the mess-deck, “Ras, the chopper's here!" "You guys'll have to finish it," I said over my shoulder, as I went below to fetch my sea bag. Jurkovitch and the new ETs had the same frantic expressions on their faces that I had on mine the day Parker went back to Texas. But there was no doubt in my mind that those boys would do just fine. In all honesty, I believe they probably did a job better than I had. Anyway’ it wasn’t my worry any longer: now I had even bigger worries. So on April Fools day 1969 I bid my shipmates farewell and the old rust bucket a final good riddance. A thin cable with a loop on the end of it was lowered from the helicopter. First my sea bag went up, and then me. I waved goodbye to my shipmates as I was hoisted free from the heaving deck of the USS Quapaw. The chopper banked, peeled away and slowly reeled me in. Off to my uncertain destiny, I dangled from the wire like a hooked fish. By the time I got up to the chopper's door, my ship had vanished like a ghost beneath the turbulent gray clouds of the Tonkin Gulf. Somebody yanked into the vortex of that deafening man-made tornado and heaved me onto a pile of blood-soaked mailbags, for the amusement, I supposed, of the jaded crew. Grateful to be wearing only dungarees, I wiped off what I could of the dismal mess and quickly forgot the "Mighty Q." I had 30 days leave coming before reporting to "survival school" at Coronado, California, and then Marine gunnery training at Camp Pendleton. I figured it would take a couple of days to get home and I would get my full allotment of leave time before my due date at Coronado and so I was in no mood to waste any time enroute. The chopper landed a short time later on the semi-controlled chaos known as a flight-deck on the aircraft carrier “USS Ticonderoga.” I would be flying from there to the Philippines on a little C-2 transport. Trouble was the C2’s had all been grounded after the last two sent out had crashed before reaching their destination and so I was going to be stuck on the carrier until they figured out what had happened. I checked in with the Chief Master at Arms and got issued a bunk. There are no passengers on US Navy vessels. Everyone has a job to do, even those in transit (except for most of the Chiefs, that is, who lived on whiskey at night and during the day coffee, the life-blood of the US Navy, which they deftly spoon-stirred with the thumb of the hand that held the cup, the ultimate sign of status which could only be learned through endless idle hours of practice. With the other hand they rubbed their pot-bellies and scratched their asses as they walked the decks “stupervising” the working crew.) As a non-com, I was obliged to keep busy. But I was averse to a shitty work detail so at reveille I slipped out ahead of the MAA for the nearest chow hall. On a carrier there are many places to eat. Then I took the grand tour, spending the better part of the first day behind the “house” watching F-4s take off and land during their bombing forays into North Vietnam. Every landing was a spectacle almost too terrifying to watch. They came in at around 200 mph then suddenly dropped twenty-some feet onto the undulating steel deck, then got cable-snapped at full throttle to a screaming, gut-busting halt. This was repeatedly performed with the awkward grace of a belly-flopping rhinoceros. But sometimes the hook missed the cable and the pilot had to blast off again, never-mind, right back into the sky like a screaming bird out of hell, narrowly missing a headlong plunge into the brink. Talk about adrenaline pumping stress and nerves or steel! In the following days I explored the vast and fascinating world of the modern Aircraft Carrier, boggling my mind with all of its stupendous scale and complexity. Even the anchor chains were worthy of awe with each link the weight of a car. It was not so much a ship as a world of its own moving through a universe of water, a perception I wrestled my mind into accepting: that it was not the ocean itself rushing past the open expanse of the hanger bay door but merely a ship I was standing on-sailing along. I checked in regularly with flight control, but was always told the same thing. “They’re still grounded” (an odd term to use on a ship). So I waited and waited, using up my precious leave-time minute by minute. Meanwhile the Chief MAA was looking for someone to clean his office top to bottom. That meant take out all of the furniture, strip the deck and wax it, wipe down the bulkheads etc. and he was a little short-handed. Eventually he turned back a page in the roster. “Exactly where the hell have you been all week sailor?” Normally a Third Class petty officer would not be made to do such menial labor, but it was my punishment. I had gotten everything out into the passageway and had commenced to making a big mess of his quarters with water and scouring compound all over the deck, while the MAA stood in the doorway watching scornfully. Then out-of-the-blue someone arrived from flight control. “We got a C-2 ready to go in five minutes anybody down here want to chance it?” That would be me. Two small rockets were bolted to the fuselage of the small propeller driven plane. When the engines hit full throttle the rockets fired and the plane shot into the sky like a bottle rocket, then just as quickly slowed down to a sluggish pace and headed toward Subic Bay over a 1000 miles away. There I spent Easter weekend at the gay transit barracks, or so it seemed. The Navy had been ferreting out their homosexuals and this is where they all ended up in a kind of sexual orientation limbo waiting patiently to be processed out. Never did I see a happier barracks. Chapter Eighteen My brother once remarked that I was a different person when I came home from Vietnam. I told him that actually I was a different person when I left for Vietnam. I finally arrived in Toledo late, pissed off and bitter. Christine was worried as well, but she tried her best to conceal it and had planned to make what was left of our month together as pleasant as possible. She found a stylish new apartment with an expansive view of Toledo and we pretended like we were still on our honeymoon--like we were back in Waikiki. Maybe we could keep our cruise plans with Ernie and Edna when I came home in a year--IF, I thought to myself, and so did Christine. Returning to our apartment one day, I ran into Bobby Coulter, an old high school friend. I'd known Bobby since the eighth grade--the year we both arrived in Toledo right after the start-up of the new paper mill. He was a sturdy redheaded kid, a natural born comedian with a wit and laugh that made him seem older than his years. Bobby had introduced a lot of hip words and new phrases into our adolescent lexicon. He also introduced me to coffee. We both brought candy "Coffee Charms" to Social Studies class thinking they would keep us awake through the boring afternoon hour. Real coffee was secreted in the teacher’s smoking lounge to keep them awake while many of the students snoozed openly at their desks. More likely it was our antics that kept us going as we tried to provide a little levity to the class, which eventually got us seated on opposite sides of the room. Anyhow, I stopped to shoot the breeze with Bobby. We leaned against his car, staring at the ground, occasionally nodding at an acquaintance in a passing car as we talked. He had gotten drafted too, and ended up in the Army. And like me, he had recently gotten married, to a friend of Christine's named Gracie. He told me he was heading to 'Nam soon and felt pretty much the way I did about it--glum and resigned. "Good luck Chuck. Take care of yourself" "You too Bobby," I said. I never saw my good-natured friend again after that, and neither did anyone else. A few months later Bobby lay on his back in a field hospital, delirious with malaria. He threw up, and when there was no one there to turn him onto his side he choked to death on his vomit. His heartbroken family buried him in the little cemetery, right down the road from the spot where I last saw him. [Last Memorial Day (2001) I was at a service at that same cemetery for Christine's father, Harry, who had recently passed away. Another High school pal and I went over to visit Bobby's grave in a corner of the cemetery. "Oh god Chuck, look Bobby doesn't have a flag!" "Hell Mike, if he's like me, he wouldn't really want one." Mike says, "I've always felt guilty that you guys had to go and I didn't." "Forget it Mike,” I said, “I've always been thankful you didn't have to. You didn't miss a damned thing."] Thirty days went by and then a week or so more. My Dad asked me knowingly how much leave time I had left. When I told him that I was officially AWOL he turned away in disgust and walked off. Then I told Christine I'd been thinking that maybe we should go to Canada. How seriously I felt about that option I don't remember exactly. All I know is I did not want to go to Vietnam any more than a runaway slave wanted to return to his master--even if it was the law and I was still under my oath. By the spring of 1969 I had inevitably developed some strong feelings about the war. There was certainly no shortage of violently bitter vets around willing to share their opinions on the matter and the ones who weren’t bitter seemed to be even more screwed-up than those who were. The message of the anti-war crowd at this point was finally starting to sink in with a lot of people, including me. What the hell were we doing there and why the hell was I going along with it? I was beginning to feel like some kind of Nazi. The last thing I wanted to do was put that stupid monkey suit back on and go marching straight into hell. Maybe I was just scared, just tossing around this half-baked plan to get some support or maybe a bit of sympathy. I wasn't fully committed yet to the biggest decision of my life so far--had to bounce it off Christine first; we were in this together, husband and wife. We went for a drive out to the countryside and I pulled over next to an open field. I thought she would be ecstatic when I told her the news. "If YOU do that," she said, "I'll never speak to you again." She was concerned about my honor, and our future. It could ruin our lives. And that was that. I was taken aback by her bluntness and stubborn anger. In a matter of weeks I had become a derailed coward and it took my young wife all but two seconds to put me back on track. The reckless fantasy was quickly forgotten as I came back to my senses. Guess I believed that she loved me enough to convince me to do the right and proper thing. In my heart I knew she didn't mean what she had said. I always hoped she didn't. That was, however, not much comfort in the year that followed, that my wife, the person I loved above all others, would not perhaps have spoken to me again had I not been where I was. Now she says she didn't mean it at all. After reading the first draft of this memoir, she said that that paragraph had hurt her deeply. She told me of the tremendous pressure put to her by our combat veteran fathers who both knew she was the only one who could talk some sense into me. But hearing that after all these years hardly makes a difference now. Our fathers may have been wrong about the war in Vietnam, but they were right about one thing; I had not yet developed a mind of my own. And so in the spring of 1969 I resigned myself to going off to fight the unjust war after all. Hoping to save face, honor and our marriage I immediately packed my bags and departed for Coronado. It was the good-bye to end good-byes--a moment completely blocked from my memory. Funny how that works. I Arrived at survival school nine days overdue and presented my orders, without any explanation whatsoever, to the receiving officer. He studied the incriminating papers, repeatedly staring long and hard at the unforgivable date, May 9, 1969. "I guess you know what this means, Sailor." Yup, I was guessing, in a give-a-shit sort of way, that for unrepentant AWOL I would be languishing in the nearest marine brig until I’d gotten my priorities straight. "No Sir, I don’t know what it means." The Officer could probably tell by my insolent indifference that imprisonment was the least of my concerns. "You've missed your class, now you'll have to wait another week for the next one. The missing days will be added onto your enlistment to give you a full year in ‘Nam." I was neither relieved nor disappointed. Perhaps I could survive my year in “Nam, beat the devil out of the extra time and still come out ahead, having just lived those precious few days in advance. The so-called "Survival school" was nothing more than a euphemism for brainwashing camp. It was important that we arrive in Vietnam with a healthy fear of its citizens--otherwise how could we hate them, and if we couldn't hate them, then we might find it difficult to kill them, and what the hell good would that be? America was not in Vietnam to make friends, but to kick some foreign ass. The instructors horrified us all with lots of little known “facts” about the evil "Gooks." Imagine the collective shock in the packed auditorium when we were told that beautiful Vietnamese women will insert razor blades into their vaginas to slice the penis of any GI who might be tempted to succumb to their deadly siren charms; an horrific image that absolutely stunned the audience. And these guys knew what they were talking about—they had been there--seen it all. Presumably they were the single edge razors, I thought to myself. That’s the way I was thinking, in an attempt to make some sense of the utter bullshit I was hearing. "Better listen up men, this could save your lives." To instill in us a fear of the children, we learned that mothers showed toddlers how to pull the pins out of hand grenades and then walk smiling into unsuspecting groups of American soldiers; Vietnamese mothers were monsters. Every Vietnamese male, even old Papa san, was to be regarded as a dangerous Viet Cong. “The Dinks all look alike, and you can’t see into their heads, so you better not take any chances.” "The more of this information you remember, the greater your chances of making it back alive." As it is today, the rules of engagement permitted the GI to use deadly force on anyone whenever there was a “perceived” threat of death or serious bodily injury. Varying perceptions of threat ultimately resulted in the loss of countless innocent lives in Vietnam. All of this in the name of Democracy. I didn't know what to believe anymore. It sounded so unbelievable and wrong, yet it was presented as the hard truth, to be rejected at ones peril. To be willing to accept something as the truth, when you know in your heart that it is wrong, is not that the very definition of evil? And if war is indeed hell, as it has so often been described (to think otherwise seems delusional) then we were in fact being groomed by those men for a journey into hell. And just who, exactly, would sow the seeds of hatred along the road to hell? I was beginning to feel like I had made a pact with the devil. Coronado was also the training base for the Navy SEAL team. SEALS are the crème de la crème of the Navy, some of the best-trained warriors in the world. One day I was waiting in line at the chow hall when a small group of them showed up carrying seven-man lifeboats on their shoulders. They were in the middle of “hell week,” the final phase after several months of rigorous training. During that week the trainees were deprived of sleep and forced to remain soaking wet the entire time, and to carry their boat on their shoulders wherever they went, day and night. At the chow hall they dropped theirs boats and ran yelling and snarling toward the door while those of us waiting in line scrambled to get out of their way. They seemed more like a pack of hungry crazed animals than human beings and we viewed them with a mixture of awe and horror. What in holy hell were they capable of? [In the spring of 2001, in a “60 Minutes II” interview with Mike Wallace, former US senator, presidential candidate, war hero and Bronze Star recipient Bob Kerry described his very own night in hell, claiming that the 20 or so Vietnamese women, children, and old men that he and his SEAL team stabbed and shot to death during the night of February 25,1969 in the tiny village of Thanh Phong, Vietnam, were considered to be dangerous Viet Cong, even the last one to die--a crying infant. Perhaps they thought the baby, whose mother lay dying next to him in the ditch, was going to leap at them with a live grenade in his teeth. As a young man, Kerry went through SEAL training in Coronado at roughly the same time I went trough my own brainwashing there. "Kerry's Raiders" arrived at the Cam Ranh Bay Naval station a few months before I got there. Kerry was unusually eager in that he was ready to “take Hanoi with a knife in my teeth.”] Many of the actual survival instructions sounded equally implausible. If you are injured in combat and have no clean water with which to wash your wound, you can use your own urine--it being more sanitary than any water you might find in the jungle. If the wound should become infected you simply allow maggots to gorge themselves on your gangrenous flesh, then roast them over a fire and enjoy them like popcorn. Fuck! Being a country boy who grew up with firearms, I naturally found Marine Gunnery School to be somewhat fascinating, except for the endless marching that is. Between each area of instruction we routinely marched several foot-blistering miles through rattlesnake infested hills. In one area we practiced with live hand grenades. During that particular drill I was screamed at by a grunt for tossing a grenade too quickly. When you’ve got only four seconds to get rid of a bomb before it blows you to bits you don’t feel much like taking your time just to make some over-zealous marine DI happy; not me anyway. I was going to make it back alive all right, starting from right now. Then we marched a few more miles to a mock Vietnamese hamlet. With our M-16s and several clips of live ammo we shot the bejeezus out of some steel pop-up "gooks" dressed in conical hats and black pajamas. That was, we were told, the uniform of the Viet Cong guerrilla. Never mind that it was also what just about every Vietnamese in the country wore as well. At the command, “Kill, Yell Kill” we shot everyone in sight. Then we marched five or six miles to fire a mortar at a pockmarked patch of dirt, and then five miles to chow, and then the five miles back to the mortar place again. This we did for several days. The dusty trails winding through the rolling dry grass hills of Camp Pendleton were trampled by countless plodding footsteps into fine powder. As we marched along, the dust we kicked up billowed around us in a choking cloud, caking onto our sweaty skin and covering every inch of our clothing from cap to boot. It was a breeze for the Marine boots. They were in their advanced training phase and in peek physical condition; they had muscles in their shit. The "grunts" returned at dusk the same way they left at dawn, singing away at the top of their gung-ho lungs. "Ya hadda good home but-cha-leff, yo-leff, yo-leff-rot-leff." Back at camp, they broke ranks and ran into their tents yelling all the way. At night they slept like babies while their hardening bodies metamorphosed into fighting machines. In dreams they played patty cake to the beat "KILL, KILL, KILL!" Killing and fighting was drilled into their heads until they didn’t even think anymore. How else could you get a man to throw himself into a holocaust at the snap of a finger? Esprit de corps was stamped for life into their very souls; if you ever have a combat marine at your side, you know the guy will die for you without a flicker of hesitation. All of us sailors had just come in from the fleet on sea legs and by days end it was all we could do to drag our tired worn out carcasses back to the tents and flop out on our cots. Most of us had hardly exercised at all aboard ship, it not being required or even encouraged, but we had only a few days to get in shape for the war, so we grunted it out with the grunts and gave it our best shot. At times the marine instructors employed techniques verging on excellent theater as they taught us to handle every weapon we might conceivably be required to use in Vietnam. We watched in awe as a marine sergeant completely field-stripped a colt 45 automatic pistol, juggling the pieces in his white-gloved hands like a magician. While standing at rigid attention he named each part as he broke down the weapon into its various components and then reassembled it in the reverse order, all the while staring through reflective sunglasses directly into the eyes of his enthralled audience. Finally he shoved in a loaded clip and rapidly fired several rounds into the air. “Wow, far out.” We were all impressed. Another sweltering afternoon we sat in rapt attention on some wooden bleachers as a pair of instructors demonstrated the mechanics and awesome firepower of a 50-caliber machine gun, a powerful weapon capable of bringing down aircraft or blowing holes in a boat. One was mounted on each wing of the "Quapaw’s" bridge for such purposes. At the conclusion of the demonstration, an extraordinary man strolled into the arena and stood next to the 50 cal. Like a great metal raptor, the gun perched firmly atop a sturdy tripod, a wisp of smoke curling out of its muzzle. The man was an unusually tall, lanky, platinum haired, Marine Corps Colonel. It was June in Southern California and the hot desert air shimmered over the naked ground like heat waves above an open fire. The scene fell silent as the Colonel rested his large hand squarely on the warm back of the weapon and bellowed in a voice not requiring amplification, "Gentlemen, this is a fifty caliber machine gun. Fully loaded the fifty-cal weighs over a hundred and fifty pounds and it kicks like a jackass, as you have all just seen. You have also probably seen John Wayne shooting one of these babies from the hip while climbing up 'Hamburger Hill' or taking the beach at Iwo Jima. That gentlemen is a physical impossibility. There isn't a man on the planet who can fire a fifty caliber machine-gun from the hip. NOT ONE!" "EXCEPT FOR ME." The Colonel then unbolted the gun from its mount and placed it firmly against his right hip. Planting his left foot into the ground he leaned forward, drew back the cocking lever, pulled the trigger and fired several deafening rounds into the hillside. The quick loud burst kicked the gun barrel straight up into the air and shoved the colonel back about five feet. He held his ground though, stiff and resolute as a tin soldier. Two more times he did it, leaving a skid-mark in the dry hard-packed dirt about fifteen feet long. The colonel then handed the sizzling 50 cal. to the two smiling "jar heads", knocked the dirt off the spit-shined heels of his combat boots, turned his back to a standing ovation and coolly walked away. "Well, it's One Two Three, what're we fightin' for? I don't know and I don't give a damn, next stop is Viet Nam...." Country Joe Macdonald is a Vietnam Veteran. En route, the “Flying Tiger Airlines” Boeing 707 stopped at Honolulu International Airport to refuel. I placed a quick call to our neighbors in Waikiki, Ernie and Edna Franken. "Where are you kid?" "I'm at the airport." "I'll pick you up." "Uh, Ernie I'm on my way to Viet Nam. My plane leaves in ten minutes." "Oh no you're not! I'll be there in five. Stay right where you are." "Ernie I can't. Really I have no choice in the matter." "Yes you do Charlie, please, stay by the phone, I'm leaving right now!" click. I got on the plane. But thank you Ernie, wherever you are; that's all I needed to hear. Shortly after take-off I saw Pearl Harbor below and briefly wondered about the Quapaw and the shipmates I would never see again. When I looked down toward Waikiki for a last glimpse of our honeymoon home on the Alliwai canal, the airliner made a sudden hard turn toward the Southwest. Honolulu, Waikiki and finally Diamond Head slid beneath the upturned wing and disappeared. The stewardesses were a heavenly presence on the otherwise long and depressing flight from Honolulu to Cam Rahn Airbase. They were as cheerful as they could possibly be on a flight that was for all of us “cargo” onboard, a heart-sinking trip into the dreaded unknown, but for the next several hours we pretty-much kept our private feelings to ourselves. During the final descent over the South China Sea the plane’s cabin became as still and as solemn as funeral parlor. Staring glumly out the window, I prayed silently that something would happen to the aircraft, forcing it to ditch into the familiar ocean below, so that we could take our chances there instead. I was not yet willing to accept my fate. But it was someone else’s prayers that were answered that afternoon and our plane eventually landed smoothly and safely on a ten thousand foot concrete landing strip that had been laid out over an immense rectangle of perfectly flattened sand. The “Flying Tigers” airliner, with its anxious cargo, taxied toward the terminal area and finally whined down to a dead stop on a large corrugated blanket of interlocking steel plates that covered an area about the size of a city block. Exiting the aircraft under the blinding light of a white-hot sun I exhaled my last air-conditioned breath of the world-left-behind and inhaled my first lungful of the fumes of war. Proceeding down the stairs one by one onto the skillet-hot decking we plodded single-file toward the terminal building. I half expected the soles of my shoes to melt; it was that hot. Hell the elements alone were going kill me; forget about the Viet Cong. All my senses retracted like the feelers of an offended snail. Nearby, jet exhaust had stirred up a roiling cloud of black stench billowing from a row of fifty-five gallon steel drums. The drums had been torched in half and slid under wooden benches to serve as makeshift latrines. When they were full, it was some unlucky GIs job to drag the barrels with a hook to an open area, pour diesel oil on the shit and set it afire (In the military there is a job for everyone.) The air itself became an open sewer. The pallid aroma of institutional food and a faint weedy whiff of marijuana smoke wafted through the acrid vapors. Vietnam's signature melody, the incessant chop, chop, chopping of the ubiquitous helicopters, permeated the hot foul-smelling air. The chopper's blunt percussive downbeat, the unforgettable sound that would haunt Vietnam veterans for the rest of their lives, harmonized neatly with the whine of scurrying jeeps and the deep throated diesel rattle of the two and a half ton military trucks known as "deuce and a halfs." Hot stuffy and chaotic, the large wood-framed, tin-roofed terminal building interfaced the real world with the unreal, sucking an endless stream of dejected souls in one side and spitting them out the other. Uniformed men of every branch of service carrying everything they owned swarmed the terminal. Tired, frustrated and frightened men rushed here and there or waited anxiously in slow-moving lines. Several hollow-eyed soldiers crouched against a nearby wall, staring blankly through a thin but impenetrable barrier that separated them from the rest of us. Harried personnel busily tried to keep things moving. Mostly it was chaos, like any hectic airport, except that at this one, no one carried skis to check. There were also no women, and no children to keep an eye on. Occasionally you'd see an American woman in Viet Nam. If you had a vagina you didn't have to be there. The draft didn't apply to females and neither did "Catch-22." It is argued today that women weren't given the same choices as men back then—not treated equally. Times have changed things in many ways, though not fundamentally, for today it is still only the boys who are required by law to register with the Selective Service when they turn eighteen--so much for equal rights. Those arriving and those departing stared at each other across a void of inexpressible empathy. Here there was no smirking at the new guys; nothing left to prove at this point. No offenses were taken and no comfort given. Oh sure, there were those gung-ho types, who vaingloriously boasted of taking Hanoi with a knife, but that was just ignorant bluster, and camouflaged fear. It wouldn’t last long. Young men lay scattered about in simmering limbo, many badly damaged, some of them all but destroyed. And then there were those unmoving black pupae: war’s ultimate horror in its cold tangible form. The body bags were scattered about like excess baggage: lifeless remains of sons, brothers, favorite uncles, lovers and husbands returning home to lie down forever under tear-washed stones in hometown cemeteries. They waited, same as the living, for a flight out. Now here we were to take our turns in their places and wondered, as we walked by, who would survive and who would not. Other boys never found their way back home alive or dead. They still sleep, eternally young, in the humus of a lonely jungle in that far away corner of the world. Decades later on a peaceful sunny afternoon old men will return to the shady edge of that same now-quiet jungle and cry the names of their lost brothers, and some will be there looking in that same dim place for a missing piece of themselves. Everyone on my flight was led to a group of sheds not far from the terminal. In stifling airless rooms we were ordered to dump the contents of our carefully packed bags onto the dirt floor so that they could be inspected for contraband. I questioned the necessity of it be done so rudely, reminding the sergeant that we were not raw recruits. But that particular sergeant was an A Number One Asshole and I told him so--trying to start a fight. It was unlike me to pick a fight, but I hadn't been in country an hour yet and already I wanted to kill somebody. But maybe I was simply trying to create the impression that I was not the kind of person they wanted in Vietnam—one final shot at rejection. Cramming everything I owned back into my sea bag, I cursed that "fucking asshole" and headed back out into the shimmering heat, wondering how I was going to get to the Naval Station. I didn't even know the direction or how far it was, and I didn't really care that much either. I had the whole year to get where I was going and to start doing whatever the fuck it was that I was sent to this depressing god forsaken place to do. Drifting away from the terminal area, I began to gather what remained of my senses and was pleasantly surprised to see ice cream cones for sale at a small stand. Who could conceive of a world devoid of ice cream? I asked the smiling black pajama-clad woman under the umbrella for “vanilla please?” Turned out to be not ice cream at all, just some sickly sweet white paste stubbornly refusing to melt under a sun that could burn bacon to a blackened crisp. I threw the disappointing glob into a trashcan and looked around. Vietnam was pragmatically drab, a world of army green, brown, gray, and black. Colors could get you killed. The idea was to blend in, become invisible. Everything was camouflaged: everything except for the blue sky and the sea. A tall sailor in tropical dress whites turning conspicuously lost circles in a sea of brown stood out like a Peking duck in a chicken yard. "Rasmussen?" A beseeching voice shouted above the din. "Beep-beep." Well, what do you know? Some dutiful marine actually showed up to greet me. I tossed my sea-bag into the back of the jeep and climbed into the shotgun seat. There was an M-16 resting against the dashboard, loaded and ready like a street-hood leaning against a lamppost. "Welcome to Viet Nam," growled the driver sarcastically. We small-talked along the dusty crowded road, as he elbowed the jeep through the tangle of traffic and shit smoke. Turned out the marine was in fact another sailor sent from the Naval Communication Station, said that I too would soon be getting my own marine jungle fatigues soon as I got settled. "Where you from?" he asked, glancing over my way. That was always the first question; sent the mind back home for safekeeping. Be it grade school or the front lines an instant bond is forged with the first friendly face: an impulse of primal necessity for companionship and recognition--the urgent desire in all creatures to know and be known. It is the way of the world and that driver was, for the time being, my only friend in an unfriendly world. Careening along a bumpy dirt road that snaked through a jungle of mutilated trees I studied my new companion for signs of unease. I saw not exotic birds perched on defoliated branches but dark shadows of Viet Cong snipers drawing beads on our two bobbing heads. Providing difficult targets to the enemy was the only consolation afforded by the condition of the road. I nervously scanned the roadside for any sign of the Viet Cong, imagining booby traps there with sharpened bamboo punji sticks dipped in human excrement. I held my breath in anticipation of the landmine that I expected at any second would blow the jeep and us straight up into the air. But the driver seemed surprisingly confident, and so I began to relax somewhat already. As evening approached, we bounced down through a grassy lowland in futile pursuit of a sinking red sun. It was now deserting us to the night as it slowly settled into the darkening treetops. We proceeded down a causeway that ran alongside a lovely stretch of barren beach, the even rolling waves of the South China Sea gently lapping at its fine white sand. We passed a small cluster of lonely isolated buildings cocooned in sandbag bunkers and coils of barbed wire, and surrounded incongruously by a bright green neatly mowed lawn. Finally we drove up through a rocky pass and over some sandy wind-blown hills that eventually crested onto a splendid view of the desolate southern end of Cam Ranh peninsula. A mile or so below lay the Naval Base, a thin scattering of utilitarian buildings and piers nudging the expansive bay at the end of the road, and beyond that, a Chinese painting of picturesque points of distant land jutting into the sea, stair-stepping toward the setting sun. It was late by the time I finished checking in with the Communication Station Master at Arms--and totally dark. My final destination hadn't been determined yet, so I would be spending the night over at the transit barracks. They issued me a blanket and a pillow—not that I needed the blanket though. It was still quite warm and I was much too edgy to even remove my shoes that night, let alone my clothing. On the way over to the transit barracks I passed the Enlisted Men's club and poked my head through the door for a look-see. Inside a rowdy bunch of drunks in blue jeans, jungle-green T-shirts and cowboy hats yelled obscenities at each other over the deafening blare of Acid Rock. They were Navy SEALs. Weary from the day’s travels, I was in no mood for socializing and so I just kept right on walking, like a stray cat looking for a convenient hole to crawl into for the night. The transit barracks was the very last building on the edge of the base. Yet another wood-frame structure with a corrugated tin roof, it had screen-covered horizontal slats instead of windows to admit the cooling sea-breeze and keep the ferocious mosquitoes at bay. It seemed situated a bit close to the dangerous jungle to suit me, but despite my reservations I gave the door a tentative nudge and stepped inside. There were several rows of empty lockers and bare bunks with their mattresses rolled back. It was completely unoccupied and disturbingly quiet. In order to see in all directions and to be able to keep a sharp lookout, I chose a bunk in the center of the dimly lit room. I carefully searched it for any trip-wires that might have been cleverly attached to the pin of a hand grenade. Trying to remember everything I'd learned in survival school I carefully examined the locker by slowly running a finger along the door opening, feeling for anything suspicious. Naturally I was on edge. Who wouldn’t be a tad bit jumpy their first night in Vietnam? But I sensed something else, an unseen, but deeply felt menace that really had me spooked. Warily, like a nervous deer entering an open field, I scanned my surroundings. It felt like I was being watched, like I was being stalked. And then, peering through the maze of bunks and lockers I spotted something that froze the blood in my veins; someone in the darkened corner! My heart exploded like a hand-grenade and then it stopped beating altogether. He wore the infamous uniform of black pajamas and a conical straw hat, and he carried what appeared to be a Soviet-made AK-47 assault rifle. A Viet Cong sapper! Holy fucking shit! If only I’d had a weapon, I’d have dropped that gook in an instant. Oh Christ! I was going to get my head blown off my first god damned night in country! With a mind clenched in a state of apoplectic terror I commanded myself to “THINK.” Fight or flight? Cornered, stunned, I could do neither. "Think...Think for god's sake! This is it man! This is fucking IT!” I was a dead man already. Then my heart started to jackhammer a hole right through my ribcage as I instinctively ducked behind the thin walls of a sheet-metal locker. It was all I had between me and “Charlie”. Peering around the corner of the locker, I watched in breathless terror as the sapper commenced to sweeping the room with the deadly AK-47 rifle. As if I were living in some strange nightmarish world where one thing magically changes into another, the AK-47 reshaped itself into a small fanlike broom— right, like I'm going to fall for that trick. And then the Viet Cong sapper gradually morphed himself, before my incredulous eyes, into a quivering little Vietnamese girl, nervous, scared and all alone in a spooky barracks with some "dinka dao" (crazy acting) ready to run out screaming berserk American GI.... I was a total fucking mess and I didn’t even know it. Pulling myself together as best I could, I resumed the search for booby-traps, all the while keeping a vigilant eye aimed at the "cleaning girl," whom, I was convinced, possessed, at the very least, a vulva cunningly armed with a freshly honed Gillette Blue Blade. I made myself look busy and unconcerned, straightening out my bunk and folding clothes until she left; no way was I going to lie down in the presence of Hanoi Hanna over there. When she finally did leave I sat on the edge of my bunk and as the subsiding rush of adrenaline coursed through my system I collapsed into a flood of despair. I may have sobbed--I don't really remember, but, returning to that night in dreams many years later I sometimes do. There were now three hundred sixty-four days to go and I would count every last one of them as time went slowly by. I would not see Christine or anyone else I cared about on any one of those days and that thought fell upon me like a cold smothering hand suffocating any remaining happiness, faith, and hope. How, I wondered, would we survive this terribly long year apart? It was Friday the 13th June 1969 and there, alone in the hostile darkness of an empty room in an alien world, I firmly believed that at twenty-two years of age I had passed that night through the gates of hell. But it had been a very long day and I was much too tired to lay awake and dwell on it. Chapter Nineteen Hissing insects awakened at dawn. The sun was as bright as three suns. Already it was hot. I rolled out of my bunk and ambled over to the back door. It swung open onto some wooden stairs that stepped down to a yard of fine drifting sand and bunch grass. Beyond that there was nothing but clumps of scraggly thirsty bushes climbing up into the rocky bluffs a few hundred yards away. It looked more like a Western movie set than the dangerous jungle I'd imagined there the night before. The sudden appearance of a stunning little creature hot-footing across the sand jolted me into full consciousness. It was a miniature Tyrannosaurus! No more than a foot and a half tall, it was thin and brown like everything else in sight, and it ran by, upright like a scared little man, elbows swinging, head thrown back. My jaw fell slack when the little dinosaur dived into a hole in the ground and disappeared. I had awakened that first morning into a new and peculiar world. After showering (like the one in MASH) I stowed my sea bag in the locker next to my bunk and headed over to COMMSTA Headquarters. The base was laid out like a small quickly built town, haphazardly, alongside a resort quality beach. All of the buildings were painted beige to match the beach and the same hard-packed sand of the empty streets. The occasional passing Navy jeeps were painted haze gray and the Army jeeps dark green as were all of the deuce-and-a-halfs. The bay was an inviting pastel turquoise blue. The sky was the color of the sky everywhere else in the world. Unusual for that peninsula, there was not a trace of wind that particular morning. It was Saturday and most of the base personnel were still sacked out in their bunks suffering hot-pipe hangovers. The Naval Communication Station was comprised of three units. It was the Main Station, or Headquarters, where I now waited for the powers to decide on my final destination. This was actually where I wanted to remain, primarily because I had a pressing desire to stay put for a while, but also because the men here believed, as people generally do, that one's own place, wherever that might be, is superior to that "other" place, and by extension the people who inhabit that other place are believed inferior. So naturally I wanted to stay where I could be a member of the superior crew. The other options weren’t so good. Next best was the Transmitter Site. All naval communications were broadcast from there to ships and other stations around Viet Nam and the Pacific area in general. “Transmitters” was up the coast ten miles or so, tucked between what passed in these parts for mountains. They had a lovely beach and comparatively luxurious accommodations, but rumors circulated of cobras slithering in the bushes at "Transmitters," and at night, tigers roamed around--"man eaters." "Whatever you do, try not to get Receivers," they warned, as if it weren’t simply a decision of the higher-ups. “Guys go crazy out there man. They’re isolated, right on the beach, completely vulnerable to sappers and rocket attacks. This one guy killed himself when he got a ‘Dear John’ letter from his girl friend. He just couldn't take it any more.” "Always some kind of crazy shit goin' down up there at 'Receivers'." The Receiver Site lay midway between The "Main Station," and "Transmitters” on that lonely stretch of beach on the South China Sea. We had bounced along the causeway past it the previous evening: the place with the lawn. As it happened, that was where I was going to live for the next twelve months beginning in June of 1969, the year of Woodstock and Kent State, which were not news at all in Vietnam and the moon landing, which certainly was. Back in the “World,” Rowan & Martin’s subversive “Laugh In” was the highest rated program on network television but unlike re-runs of the wholesome family show ”Bonanza,” it was not telecast for the troops in Vietnam. “Gee Paw.” It was also the year the Beatles started hating each other, the end of the “Summer of Love” and the beginning of the reign of Richard Milhouse Nixon. That evening a crewmember from "Receivers" drove down to pick me up in a deuce-and-a-half. I climbed up into the cab, resigned to a year of "crazy shit goin’ down." With five forward gears and two-speed axel, the deuce-and-a-half provided the inept driver with ten different gears to grind and gnash together as we clattered up the bumpy road to "Receivers". Now a hard wind was blowing through the pass and drifted sand covered the ground like new fallen snow, piling into sharp-edged dunes across the quickly disappearing roadway. The deuce-and–a-half had no shock absorbers, as far as I could tell, and a seat that was about as comfortable as a bed-sheet thrown over an oak plank. At the rate of speed we were traveling, hitting the mounds of wind-blown sand, which were nearly invisible in the twilight, made the solidly built truck buck like an irate bronco. The driver was in a big hurry to get back up to site--some "big thing" going on up there. I could not wait to find out what that was. “Bang... Boom... Grind... Slam... Bang... Boom... Grind." With one hand pressed to the ceiling and the other to the seat I suspended myself between the head banging and the ass pounding. The driver shouted over at me through the roar of the diesel engine, "How'd ya end up at Receivers?" I yelled back at him. “Goddamned Navy sons of bitches!" A little while later the roaring diesel engine groaned down to a low growl as the duce & a half careened through the front gate at "Receivers” and at last shuddered to a preigniting halt. Rubbery from the ride and relieved to have gotten there intact, I grabbed my sea-bag from the back of the truck, dropped it off at the watch desk, took a leak and a quick look around and then went straight down to the beach to meet the crew. All of the personnel not on watch were down at the beach across the road by a crackling bonfire eating roasted flavorless hot dogs and drinking tepid beer in front of a funky little cabana that they had just finished knocking together that afternoon, and which would last until a storm ripped it apart and swept it out to sea a few weeks later. There were a few girls too, brought in for the occasion. A half-dozen sociable mutts pranced up to greet me. A tall black man walked straight up and shoved a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon at me. "We've been waiting for you. Welcome aboard." He was the officer in charge-a “lootenant.” Introductions went all around--girls included. Everyone knew from personal experience precisely how I felt--like the moment you enter a prison cell and the door slams shut behind you. I pulled the tab on my Pabst Blue Ribbon and chugged about half of it. A welcoming party had become a tradition of the small crew residing at the site after adopting the courtesy from previous members to help ease the newcomers into life at “The Receivers Site.” It was, they assured me, the best place to be. Only about fifteen or so men resided at the site, plus a handful of radiomen who worked in twelve hour shifts, but lived in their own barracks down at the naval base. They were a wide variety of characters and at first appearances a friendly bunch. As with any small group living in such close quarters it was important that everyone got along reasonably well. In every man I sensed a deep-running resentment at being cast-off by the navy and left stranded high and dry at this out–of-the-way-station in the middle of fucking nowhere. On the other hand there was the comforting, though guilt inducing belief that if you had to serve in Vietnam, this remote, hard-to-get-to location was not a bad place at all to do your time. It felt like it was going to be okay-- sure as hell would take some getting used to, but okay. I could handle this. One of the girls approached me with an open smile. "Hi, you new GI?" Tall for a Vietnamese, she was one of the most naturally beautiful women I had ever seen; mind you, this was before the alcohol had kicked in. In the vernacular, she was Playboy Bunny material. With the meager list of life-saving Vietnamese words I’d somehow retained from the lectures at Coronado and her similar command of the English language, the girl and I engaged in a very limited conversation and managed to chat our way through another a beer and a hotdog. Aphrodite then dug a surprisingly unselfconscious finger up her nose as far as she could possibly get it and then, pressing close in, she said softly to me in perfectly clear English, "You want girlfriend?" Such an alluring temptation of guileless beauty was almost more than I could bear. I pulled the tab on yet another can of Pabst and drifted down toward to the shoreline--to the sea that connected me, however distant, to the home and woman I’d left behind. The girl followed and standing by my side up to our ankles in the warm gently lapping waves we gazed silently together out across the South China Sea towards the slowly rising moon. At that exact moment the same moon was disappearing with dawn over the forested hills of Toledo, where my wife lay sound asleep, half a world away. A girlfriend was not what I needed now. Over by the bonfire, an older fellow, the one who had been introduced to me as the Gunner's Mate, squatted in the sand, Viet style, jerking-off one of the pooches. Gunner panted heartily between swigs of whiskey sucked straight from the bottle. "Come on Oakie old boy." No one seemed to be paying Gunner any mind, nor did there appear to be the least concern that his perversities might give a wrong first impression to the new guy. It was like, "This is the way it is at ‘Receivers’ pal, better get used to it." The girls thought it a bit queer however, whispering to each other about it in Vietnamese as they averted their eyes in disgust. Gunner lived alone with some of the dogs in a "shack" at the rear of the compound. The gunner's shack, which had originally been constructed as a clubhouse, sat, isolated from the other buildings, against the back fence. The roof, doubling as a platform for an M-60 machine gun, had a tin awning hanging off the front side of it which shaded a picnic table, which sat on a patio, which was made of the same kind of interlocking steel plates that my plane had parked on the day before. Next to the patio was a small flower garden with a slender banana tree in one corner struggling to maintain a frail existence in the stifling heat of the relentless summer sun. That garden was Gunner's pride and joy. Decorating the outside walls were objects combed from the beach: sun bleached netting, draping rope, seashells, a weathered life ring with an unlucky boat's name painted on it. Gunner liked to drink and rarely left the place, but when he did, he staggered, and seldom beyond the well worn path between his little hooch and main building, which is where the head was. After a while he had the clubhouse all to himself--him and the dogs. Looked to me like the worn out old man had been in the United States Navy a tad too long. We sometimes called him “Pops.” He was only 35 years old. The compound itself was square, about two hundred feet on the side and securely enclosed within a high cyclone fence that had been topped with coiled, barbed, "concertina" wire. Around the perimeter of the fence lay a dead zone with row upon row of the same flesh-ripping wire. The front of the site faced east toward the South China Sea, which in mid-June rolled calmly onto the long stretch of beach not more than a hundred feet away. More coils of concertina wire lay the full length of the beach at the high-water line. The compound actually was on the beach, being separated from it only by the single road on this side of the peninsula. A strong typhoon could well have blown the whole works into the jungle, which started a couple hundred yards west and grew thick and impenetrable over the tops of the rocky hills and down the other side to the waters of Cam Ranh Bay, the largest deep-water bay in all of Southeast Asia. A sparse skeletal forest of radio antennae was all that stood on the barren expanse of sand and cut-grass that lay between the back fence and the jungle. Electromagnetic waves gathered from the ether flowed at light-speed down the antennae, through an underground network of coaxial cables and on into the radio room. Riding these "carrier" waves, like smaller ripples, were bits of encrypted gibberish. A bank of radio receivers, each one tuned to a specific length of wave (frequency) then stripped the gibberish from its carrier, amplified it a million or so times into electrical pulses, and fed these pulses into cryptographic deciphering machines, with names like KW-7 and KG-14. These top-secret "crypto sets" unscrambled the gibberish into intelligible signals, which a bank of Teletype machines pecked into words and sentences. Radiomen and Communication Technicians operating the equipment sorted the information and beamed it all via microwave down to the main station. The ET’s job was to fix anything that broke. (I could finally forget about UCr-32 transcievers, radars, fathometers, lorans and IFF systems.) Adjacent to the radio room was the ET shop, which was filled with technical manuals, tools, spare parts, and a vast array of state-of-the-art, mostly Hewlett Packard testing equipment. We thought it a mere coincidence that the Deputy Secretary of Defense, David Packard had the same name as our voltage meters and Oscilloscopes. The guy must have made a bundle in Vietnam. We began to wonder if he wasn’t part of that “Military Industrial Complex” President Eisenhower had tried to warn the nation about. Then when Kennedy became president, Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara had recently transferred to the new administration from his position as Chief at Ford Motor Company. Soon after that, the military supply system was redesigned after Ford’s and Vietnam became the best-supplied war in history. You could get anything that you wanted at Macnamara’s restaurant. Even us lowly enlisted pukes were beginning to smell a rat. At first we thought it was just the offshore oil or something like that the U.S. businesses wanted to get their hands on. Not for one second did we believe so many people were being killed because of some “Domino Theory.” We all had had enough experience with the government by that time to know that when they admitted to anything it was only to conceal or divert attention from the real truth. Hey, we were government operators ourselves—very minor ones to be sure, but we weren’t complete idiots anymore either. Not civilian idiots anyhow. The transmitter site performed exactly the reverse of our operation. "Transmitters" was yang to “Receivers” yin. Their antennae radiated vast amounts electromagnetic intelligence into the sky, which was the reason for situating the two sites with an impenetrable mountain between them. A mutual suspicion existed between the polar opposites which stirred up a lot of gossip such as, they swam naked at "Transmitters," and there was even some "homo" stuff going on over there. And there were, "dog," stories about "Receivers," and the guys there were a bunch of lunatics and "Fraggers." (From rolling a fragmentation grenade into a superior's tent when you disagreed with the way he was running things). Our site consisted primarily of two conjoined buildings, one for the radios and one for the crew. Both buildings were cooled by two enormous air conditioners that made us the envy of everyone who knew our secret. In the stifling heat of Viet Nam, AC was the ultimate luxury; at Receivers, we slept cozy under poncho liners and warm wool blankets. In a separate building (the one behind which the brokenhearted sailor plugged himself immediately after getting his “Dear John” letter) two huge Caterpillar generators powered the whole works. Thick sandbag walls protected all of the vulnerable areas of the compound. Fresh water was at a premium all over the peninsula, but not for us. While everyone else living on that arid patch of sand and boulders suffered constant water rationing and showered in unpotable water, we were blessed with a bountiful well that provided a limitless supply of fresh frigid water. We kept the sprinklers going 24 hours a day on the only lawn I ever saw in Vietnam. The lawn was "mowed" by four old Vietnamese men who spent their workday day squatting in a small circle under the pulsing white-hot sun, methodically clipping away at the precious grass with ordinary scissors, snip...snip...snip. Chewing beetle nut for its narcotic effect, the Papa sans chatted casually to each other as the hours passed and by the end of the day they had cut perhaps four square meters of perfectly manicured lawn. As they chewed and snipped the days went by and gradually their teeth turned a distinctive mahogany brown from the addictive beetlenut. Two flagpoles stood next to each other in the middle of the front lawn just inside the fence. One flew the flag of South Vietnam. The other pole waved some navy semaphore flags of long-forgotten significance. The Stars and Stripes did not fly over "Receivers." Two 105mm howitzers flanked the flagpoles. The big guns were in fact absolutely convincing plastic decoys; it was necessary to weigh them with sandbags to keep them from blowing over in a gust of wind. A decorative fence of white painted chain, with anchor completed a nautical tableau that would have been the envy of Fleet Headquarters, had they had only known of our existence. Anyone bouncing down the road in daylight could well have imagined Admiral Zumwalt himself living there. In fact the Station Commander himself resided comfortably, and to our ongoing dismay, in a fancy, for Vietnam, doublewide mobile home parked right smack in the middle of our back yard... War is heck. Chapter Twenty Now that I had a permanent address again, the letters began their long journeys back and forth between Cam Rahn Bay and Toledo, Oregon. Thus began the impossibly long year. July 4,1969 My Dearest Christine, Well Love, here we are. So much has changed in our lives, but after each setback, we go on--we must. That is life. Had I known at eighteen that I would end up here by the decisions I made back then, I would have to say I wouldn't change a thing, otherwise I might never have been with you. But I am truly sorry that I had to leave you one last time, and for so long, alone, as I am here on this deserted beach. But at least we know that we will never ever have to say goodbye again. I am safe where I am now, so you don't need to worry about me honey. It may be depressing here, but I worry more about you. Even though I am not in combat, it is still a war and if anything should happen to me, I just want you to always, always remember that I could never love anyone more than you and that what we have shared together will last forever. No matter what, the most important thing for me is that you will always be happy, as you have made me for three and a half years. Loving you has given my life meaning. Thank you for that. It is something that I will cherish forever. Some day, I promise, all this will be just a distant memory. Thank you for wanting me. Thank you for being the first to say, "I love you." Thank you for being my wife. Love, Charles Toledo, Oregon is about as far away from Vietnam as one can get and still be on the same planet. In the Sixties it was a community largely isolated from the political upheavals generated by the escalating war in Viet Nam and as in most working class towns, the ethic of duty and dearth of means provided the necessary supply of young men for the war, and a disproportionate number of casualties. Bobby Coulter and Bobby Eagleson were two of those boys. They returned to Toledo just like so many thousands of other boys across the land, as Government Issue men in Government-Issue boxes. That was the deal made and they had paid back the debt in full. Both Bobbys were married to girlfriends of Christine and she attended both funerals while I was in Vietnam. Through her letters I sensed the crushing impact and numbing despair visited on her by those two calamities. My relative safety was no comfort to her as morbid fear spread a chasm of dread across the Pacific, and it grew ever and ever wider. I fully expected that my tour in Vietnam would be even more arduous than sea duty; it was not. The antiquated equipment aboard that World War II tug was in a state of entropy and required constant attention. At Receivers everything was state of the art; racks of the best new electronics U.S. taxpayers could afford filled our electronic palace--a dazzling communications marvel it was. This was a whole new war with brand spanking new machinery. At my arrival, there were four of us ET's, with little to do. Generally by noon we had finished the day's work, but in the military, like most government jobs, one was expected to at least create the illusion of business. While thousands of GIs were in the jungles slaughtering "Gooks" and getting butchered themselves, a far greater number were "in the rear with the gear," like us, killing time, trying to stay busy, and out of harms way. Most of the “Mickey Mouse” navy bullshit that we found so pointless out in the fleet was of little value in Vietnam. There were more important concerns than looking sharp on liberty, polishing the bright work and keeping the crew exhausted and subservient. The relationship between officers and enlisted men was more relaxed in Vietnam. At Receivers our priorities were to keep the equipment running and protected from the enemy, and to not go nuts out in the middle of nowhere. I have often felt guilty about my luxurious year in Vietnam, knowing the misery that so many others suffered. In the intervening years whenever it slipped out in conversation that I had been in "Nam," people were usually taken aback, as if I had casually mentioned that I had previously been a serial killer, or that I had escaped from some place like Bergen Belsen. Disturbing images of Vietnam scrolled down their startled faces: the burning girl screaming naked down the road, running from the napalm inferno that had minutes earlier been her ancestral home, Zippo lighters igniting the fringe of a thatched roof, My Lai, Than Phong, a zombified Christopher Walken holding a pistol to his own head, Rambo. Putting their minds at ease I pointed to a tiny battle-scar above my right eye. "The surfboard I fell from flew back into my face; coulda killed me." "So what kind of painting do you do, realistic or what?" It's mostly the vets who don't ask questions and don't talk. And I always wonder why. Was the experience so awful for them that they can’t risk conjuring a suppressed memory, or the opposite? Were they heroes, criminals, cowards, errant knights? What the hell were they? And what was I? Recently, at a dinner party it was brought to my attention that another guest was also a Vietnam vet. It was sort of like, "You should go talk to Clarence over there. He was also in prison." "Hey man what were you in for?" He was a helicopter pilot. Maybe he spent his days ferrying munitions off ships and his nights tokin' up and getting blowjobs under the table at "Dodge City" over in Nha Trang, or maybe his chopper was blown to pieces in a vain attempt to pull his buddies out of a meat grinder, and he relives the nightmare every night. What am I going to say? "Did ya surf?" It was the luck of the draw; that's what it came down to for me. There were many, many fine young men, even more reluctant than I to fight--young men who had never said NO to anything--didn't even know they could say No. Boys, whose worried mothers prayed to God every single minute of the day for them, were thrown terrified into the ring, to shoot and hack and stab at other human beings like dumb crazed animals, with no other purpose than to simply try and stay alive. Certainly one does not need to be enthusiastic nor even slightly willing to fight as long as he's got somebody at his rear shoving his ass into the fray, or a leader to blindly follow. The biggest misconception about war, that they could not have done it, is often held by people like my friend Mike who chose to stay out of it. They are all dead wrong about that. Throughout history it has been easier to fight than to say “NO.” History is, in fact, pretty much an endless series of wars interrupted occasionally by brief periods of rebuilding and forgetting. Peace is viewed as a mere “breather” before the next round, forgetting as we always do that peacefulness is the natural state of things, until it is disturbed. There will always be plenty of company on the well-traveled road to war--even the "unpopular" wars. As unpopular as the war in Vietnam was, there was never a shortage of able young men, if not eager, at least willing to fight it. Today there are no more that a handful of people (take retired General William Westmoreland, for instance) who think that Vietnam was a swell idea, which will be viewed in the future as America’s finest hour. Yet, by-golly, most people will tell you it's a finer thing to drop a load of napalm on some "gooks" (especially if you get your gung-ho butt and a twenty million dollar aircraft shot out of the sky while doing it) than to object to a war, no matter how misguided, for reasons of conscience. The former is a national hero: the later a spineless coward? And then there are the kind of men, who when given the opportunity to commit mayhem will fall naturally into it. All it takes is a few, and in every war there are always many more than a few. Young men, boys I had known since the eighth grade, came back to Toledo corrupted by the war that was also corrupting their country and horrified anyone who could stand to listen to them with stories, like how surprisingly difficult it is to strangle a little Vietnamese woman. "We had to take turns because our hands got tired. She just wouldn't give up." Chapter Twenty One As a vital Navy support facility, “Receivers” was well protected. To be sure there were serious threats, such as sappers, but they were always stopped well outside the site perimeter, and there were the almost nightly rocket attacks, which never got close enough to cause us any real concern, but they did hit the nearby Army hospital up at the top of the peninsula a number of times. Lonely isolation was the price we paid for a high degree of security, though it took some time to grow accustomed to that fact. One morning I awoke completely unable to open my mouth. My first thought was that I had contracted lockjaw, until they told me down at the infirmary that it was just the stress I was under, which caused me to grit my teeth as I slept. The corpsman said I would get used to it, which I did soon enough. Human beings are amazingly adaptable to danger. Think how secure we feel cruising down the freeway with all the reckless maniacs, not to mention the shredding tires. Rather don't think about it, have a drink instead. Better yet take a pill. Relax man, won’t help to worry. Vietnam was awash in alcohol. Row upon row of pallets of beer sat in the sun “down town” (what we called the Navy Base) behind the PX, supposedly kept “fresh” by the addition formaldehyde to the brew (similar to the report that mashed potatoes were dosed with saltpeter to keep us from getting horny). Neither rumored ingredient had any noticeable effect. A fifth of tax-free Jack Daniels cost $1.20 at the PX. At ten cents each, mixed drinks served by the girls at the enlisted men's clubs were ordered four at a time, round after round. The goal was to as quickly as humanly possible reach that sublime state of consciousness known as "Shit Faced," and also to keep the girls coming back to your table. Really took the pressure off. Thai-stick Marijuana was readily available and of excellent quality, but as in the States it was considered dangerous and subversive. Harder drugs like Heroin and Opium were quite popular, serving the same purpose in Vietnam as in the States; they kept the under-class sedated and quiet. Whenever an Army convoy rumbled down the road, a cloud of weedy smoke wafted after it. Often when we drove through the nearby Army checkpoint late at night there was no need for the password, since the men posted there were almost always sprawled out on sand bag bunkers stoned out of their minds. A lot of earnest young men got sent to Vietnam only to return a year later hollowed out wrecks, drug addicted shells of their former selves. In a war where killing was considered patriotic duty, murder, as a crime on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the worst, would be--well I guess by definition it wouldn't be on the scale at all, so let's start with RAPE followed by PEDOPHILIA, then PLUNDER. Drug use probably ranked number 4. That included heroin, opium, LSD and marijuana, in that ascending order. No.5--assaulting a subordinate (falls within the category of damaging government property, remember). No.6—Kamshawing (from commercant: the French word for merchant) illicit trade in government property. No. 7--not saluting the American flag. No.8--disrespecting a senior Noncom. No.9--Disrespecting an officer. No.10--the unpardonable sin of disobedience. Way back in our first week of boot camp, while we sat bleary eyed and disoriented and still in our stinking civilian clothes, Chapter 892, ART. 92 of the punitive articles of the Uniform code of military Justice was read aloud to us word-for-word. It states: “Any person subject to this chapter who (1) violates or fails to obey any lawful order or regulation shall be punishable as a court-martial may direct.” I remember that no emphasis was put on the word LAWFUL. It is mentioned only incidentally and you would have missed it if you weren’t paying very close attention, which of course most of us were not, and you would never hear it again unless there came a fateful day when you were put on trial for a crime that you committed under the direct order of a superior. The word lawful should be the most important word in every military person’s vocabulary. But it is not: quite the opposite. Military personnel are trained to follow orders without question of conscience or of legal authority. That is the underpinning of every military organization that has ever existed. It is as fundamental to war as faith is to religion. When a platoon leader orders his men to shoot women and children, to do otherwise would be to question the legal authority of a superior officer. It is simply not done. If a soldier disagrees with a direct order he always has the right to file a formal complaint, but only after first following the order no matter how repugnant, providing also that he then follow the chain of command when filing his complaint. It would be nearly impossible to conduct a war in the usual manner were soldiers free to consider the validity of every order given, especially in the chaos of battle. A soldier must trust the decision-making ability of his or her superior, whether his name is William Calley, Bob Kerry or George W. Bush. That is why, when Lieutenant Calley was slaughtering innocents in a ditch, not one of his men was willing (or able) to step forward and challenge him. His men’s moral wills were inoperable and useless in the face of a terrible but simple dilemma, “This is wrong. What can I do?” They did nothing for the same reason we did nothing in boot camp that day to help that poor unconscious kid who was being kick by those two 40-50 goons. And that is the evil goal and result of military training. The military is no place for a person who questions authority, let alone one with an active empathetic conscience; check it in at the gate pal. Maybe you'll get it back and maybe you won't. Receivers was situated in the middle a “Free-Fire” zone, meaning you’d better have a very good reason for being there or risk getting shot. It did not however mean, as war hero Bob Kerry told Mike Wallace, that in a free-fire zone one was free to kill every person in sight. No one who served in Vietnam was permitted to murder civilians willy-nilly. Well perhaps the SEALs were; I don’t know--I know I wasn’t. None of us at “Receivers” were. Occasionally sappers would succeed in swimming past the "Market Time" swift-boats patrolling offshore from “Receivers”, only to reach the beach and then have to face the nightmarish attack of Huey gun-ships floating invisibly above in the dark, their whirling multi-barreled mini-guns spewing an utterly devastating thousand rounds a second. The stream of bullets and tracer rounds looked to the naked eye as if it were a brilliant orange rod sliding eerily and silently from some infernal hole in the sky. A second later the mournful groan of the mini-gun followed the stream of bullets into the ground. Armed in full battle gear two minutes out of deep sleep we crouched in our assigned bunkers, ready for anything, while the chopper circled above, pissing red-hot death onto the invisible enemy. None of the sappers ever got through to us. When it was over we slumped back to our bunks, and dreamed of home. The majority of these "Red Alerts" were only practice drills to keep our adrenal systems in peek condition, and to strengthen the will against the sudden sledgehammer pounding of the heart at three AM. Often we arrived at the bunkers so quickly that we were only half awake and dumbfounded at being there. The adrenal rush quickly turned to contempt for our gung-ho CO, who often drilled us for his own amusement and for the entertainment of his late-night guests at his fancy double-wide trailer parties. On party nights we would stay up and wait for the inevitable alarm; always racing to the bunkers even when we knew it was only a drill so as to not leave the impression that we needed still more practice. The drills were always followed by a critique and briefing on any new information such as the time he informed us that Viet Cong sappers cunningly smear themselves with tiger grease in order to keep the dogs from barking. A few days later, my friend Bob and I were back in the jungle scouting around. Bob grew up in Buffalo, New York and was probably the smartest of us ETs. He ended up in Vietnam the same way I did. Thus a bond was quickly forged between us through our mutual hatred of military life in general, and the United States Navy in particular. It wasn’t an official patrol, just one more way of killing some time, another means of escape from the boring confines of the compound. We were poking around a dry streambed when we stumbled upon something, or someone, in the middle of a small clearing, flinging sand out of a large hole in the ground. We took the safeties off our M-16s and inched in close enough to check it out. It was a person all right--we could hear the sound of a scraping shovel and a man breathing hard as he flung sand up onto a growing pile. Victor Charlie? (the military phonetic alphabet for V C or Viet Cong.) Often it was simply Charlie. Sometimes ridiculously we referred to our illusive enemy as Mister Charles. I covered Bob as he crawled up to the pit and peaked over the edge. Then he ducked his head and crawled backwards to where I crouched nervously pointing my gun in the direction of the hole, and whispered to me, "It's only the CO." I put my gun down. (I had started calling my M-16 a gun again, going back to the civilian terminology as part of the unlearning process.) "What the hell is he doing now?" I wondered to Bob. We were incredulous that our CO was all alone, out in what he himself often referred to as “Charlie Country,” down in a rather deep hole without a weapon at hand, leaving himself completely vulnerable to surprise or attack. His M-16, far out of reach, leaned carelessly against a distant tree. Bob whispered, "Well, let's find out." He stood up and shouted "SIR! What're you doin' down there in that hole?" The old man just about shits himself, and then makes like he knew we were there all along. Says he's constructing a tiger trap, which got us to wondering if maybe he wasn’t going to try to catch a tiger and boil it down to make some of that VC anti-dog grease for himself. The CO was a short and skinny man and this was the first time we had observed him engaged in any kind of physical labor. But judging from the size of the pit, which was a good nine or ten-feet deep, he had obviously been digging hard since early morning and it wasn't clear to Bob or me exactly how our industrious leader was planning to get his scrawny ass up out of that hole if we hadn’t come along. We stood guard while he worked for a while longer and then tossed the shovel out. "Take that rope over there,” he snorted, “tie it around that tree and hand me the other end." Then he hauls himself out as Bob I grin derisively at each other. "Sir, do you want some help?" "No you guys take off, I got this under control." The next day Bob and I went back to check on the CO's tiger trap. Perhaps he did actually catch himself a tiger, or better yet, a communist. He had laid a mat of branches across the hole and hung some meat over it for bait, and damned if he didn't catch something. A large animal had stumbled through the branches, which had then collapsed in upon it. As we approached we could hear it thrashing about and panting at the bottom of the pit. Once again we took our M-16s off safety and crept up to the hole. It wasn’t a tiger or a wild pig or a communist or any other wild beast; it was only Oakey, Gunner's best friend, and boy was that scruffy mutt ever he glad to see us. Hoping to show the old man how it was done, Bob and I knocked together a large sturdy wooden box trap and placed it near the CO’s sand pit. The next day when we went to check on it, we heard a strange banging noise coming from inside. The trap was constructed of solid lumber, making it impossible to see inside until we got close enough to look through a crack. It didn't sound anything at all like an animal--more like a man trying to knock loose one of the boards. First we thought maybe we’d inadvertently caught the CO nosing around, but then we began to wonder if it wasn’t indeed the illusive Mister Charles and disturbingly, that we might have blundered into a trap of our own making. I called out, "Hello?” There was no reply. The banging stopped, which really jangled our nerves. Clicking our M-16s on full automatic we scanned the trees encircling the small clearing. When Bob tossed a rock at the trap the banging sound started up again. This time he covered me as I crept toward the box. As I crept up close enough to peek through a crack between two of the boards I could see a large figure moving about inside. Just then something snorted and I nearly let loose with the M-16 before I recognized that familiar face. Delighted as usual to see us, it was Oakie again, his long boney tail happily whacking against the wall of the trap. Why we wanted to catch a tiger I do not know--simple curiosity I suppose--to see one up close--to meet the CO's challenge? We wouldn't have harmed it--same with a pig. Well we might have barbequed a pig. None of us believed for one second that a dab of dubious grease would protect any Viet Cong from our loyal pack. They adored every American they met, but they were racist in the extreme and hated all Asians, perhaps picking up this tendency from some of the crew. But I suspected a more fundamental reason; they probably sensed the Asian's regard for them as a culinary delight, whereas with us they felt like family. Even the two Korean generator operators, who resided in shifts at the site, lived in fear of the dogs. No doubt Mr. Tak and Mr. Chow would have enjoyed a Missy kabob--and she knew it. Missy, a German Shepherd-Doberman mix mongrelized from US military stock, was the alpha female. She led all attacks or greetings, as well as the daily forays down the beach or into the jungle. Missy was highly sociable, keen, lithe, and fearless. The alpha male was a pure white Samoyed husky, aptly named Snowball. The noble and coolly confident Snowball settled all dog disputes, usually with a sneer but sometimes with bloody mayhem. Any alien dogs venturing too near Receivers had to reckon with the white fury. Down the road a stretch there was a mysterious windowless concrete structure built atop the terminus of an under sea communication cable that originated in the Philippines. They did similar work as us but for the U.S. Air Force. We seldom saw anyone outside. They may have been restricted from the beach for security reasons or perhaps the whim of a higher up, which naturally made us suspicious. They also kept a smaller pack of dogs, which had developed a daily routine with our dogs. It went like this. Like an Apache war party the Air Force dogs suddenly appeared at the crest of a small hill. The ever alert Missy sounds the alarm. Sleeping dogs dart from their shady hideouts and gather to mount their defense. The attackers always waited until our dogs had worked themselves into a seething frenzy before they swept down across the road and converged at the fence where both packs raced back and forth snarling and growling with such rabid ferocity that if it had not for the gate being closed there certainly would have been a bloody massacre. Both packs, eventually exhausted themselves and trailed off in snorting triumph, each believing themselves victorious. Inevitably, at the height of one such battle, the gate had been left open, and as the crazed animals raced back and forth on opposite sides of the fence they suddenly found themselves out in the open-face to face. What happened next struck me with eternal amazement. The dogs froze. I mean not a twitch. The pause button had been pushed. For a moment Snowball and the other alpha male stared quizzically into each other’s eyes. Then a palpable wave of intelligence swept through those animals simple brains, for a decision was made in that instant, and agreed upon by all participants, to do the only sane and reasonable thing. Both packs raced back to the safety of the fence and resumed the battle as it had been before, and fought it to its bloodless conclusion. Meanwhile our bloody savage human war raged on. Those mutts were our constant companions and we never ventured into the jungle without one or two leading the way. Hell it could have been Nebraska to them; they hadn't heard about the Viet Cong, nor the tiny, pale green snakes called Bamboo Vipers. Thin as twigs but deadlier than cobras, we called them "two steppers," which was roughly how far you’d get after being bitten by one of them. They dangled from the bushes like camouflaged lengths of string, waiting to strike. But the only ones I ever saw were those threaded live through the cowboy hatbands of the Navy SEALs. Like the ancient Egyptian uraeus, their little green heads waved ominously, mere inches above the SEALS's forehead, licking the air and giving everyone nearby the creeps. Down at the naval base a small contingent of SEALS operated a training base for South Vietnamese SEALS. They also conducted routine missions up and down the coast. Like bats, they dozed during the day and then slipped out at night to terrorize nearby villages suspected of harboring communist sympathizers. In the wee hours they painted their faces, then climbed into fourteen foot camouflaged fiberglass boats called "skimmers," started up the muffled supercharged 75 horsepower Evinrudes, and headed for the sleeping villages. Armed with specially made stubby M-16s and long bladed knives (like the one OJ Simpson used in that commando movie) they flitted from hooch to hooch, slitting as many throats as possible, sometimes erasing entire families. The Americans were upping the ante on the Viet Cong Guerrillas, trying futilely to beat them at their own game. Then at the end of the graveyard shift, before the sun came up, they headed back to base. The next morning they filed reports listing the “Viet Cong” body count. At the end of their tour they went home as decorated war heroes to resume life in a civilized world, life with unpleasant memories of what happened to THEM in Vietnam, personal experiences they would rather not talk about privately or publicly—things that are best forgotten, quickly like a bad dream. One night down at the Enlisted Men’s club I overheard a SEAL coldly describing his interrogation of a suspected Viet Cong. The SEAL had oily black hair and resembled a perversely twisted Howdy Doody. His appearance had the effect of making his extreme cruelty seem doubly repulsive. An M-16 round had mutilated the prisoner’s arm, almost ripping it off just below the shoulder. The SEAL shoved his index finger up an exposed artery and told the screaming "Dink" he was going to follow the vessel to his heart and rip it out. "Charlie spilled his guts alright." I still remember the story vividly three decades later; I wonder if that former SEAL does, and if he still tells the story. Memory is imperfect. The other day I found an old photograph of the nautical tableau in front of “Receivers”. There was no anchor. It was a mooring float--two in fact and the chain was painted black, not white like I described earlier. After three decades of fading memory, perhaps it was the right arm that SEAL remembers and not the actual left--a detail that the Vietnamese man has surely not forgotten, if in fact he lived to remember it. Binh Ba Island stands imposingly at the mouth of Cam Ranh Bay about two miles off the tip of the peninsula. During the Second World War, Japan had fortified the treacherous rocky hills of the mile-or-so wide island with a complex maze of tunnels and bunkers. Several enormous Japanese cannons protruding from the hilltops aim toward the open mouth of the bay, still waiting for the United States Navy to arrive. Rusting and silent, the once formidable guns and bunkers were now a mere curiosity to the occasional military tourist. A couple of my buddies and I decided one day to go check it out and caught a ride with two crazy SEALs heading over that way in a skimmer. The skimmer was flying across the water at a hair-raising clip when one of the SEALs pulls the pin out of a hand grenade and holds the little bomb at harm’s length over the water. Time accelerates quite rapidly once the pin is pulled from a live hand grenade, especially when it’s in the possession of a psycho. I instinctively began a count-down on the four-second fuse and was just about ready jump overboard when the SEAL let go. It had barely cleared the stern when a big plume of water shot into the air and nearly upended the small boat ass first. He did that several more times—once pretending to toss one to me at the last instant. The two SEALs got a big kick out of scaring the bejeezus out of me and my mates. Circling back, we stopped to grab the dozens of floating, quivering fish left stunned and dying after the explosions had ruptured their air bladders. Minutes later we pulled up to the village pier at Binh Ba Island and tossed the fish to the squealing children who came down to greet the boat and gather up the days catch. Those kids loved those SEALS. Chapter Twenty Two I had been "in country" for about a month when I received the letter from Christine telling me that she was pregnant. The news hit me like a Claymore mine. I had been thinking until that moment that "real life" was just on hold for a year. Nothing would change. We would simply hold on to what we had, and this would simply be a lost year, to be continued the next June where we left off the previous May. Forget the in between. Get on the plane -- get off the plane. Whew, glad that's over. Now, where were we? It took a few days for it to really sink in, if in fact I did at all. In retrospect I think I was probably too preoccupied with my own circumstances and dwelt mostly on what I was missing. It effectively doubled my heartache, but it would also strengthen my spirit in unforeseen ways, as expecting children usually does. I missed Christine beyond reason, and now more than ever I began to feel the urgent necessity of my presence back home. I was bitterly homesick and cursing the creeping time. She was home in Toledo at eighteen years old facing a whole new life by herself, afraid that I would not come back to her, or worried about how I would return. Dead or alive, Vietnam changed the people who went there, and she had seen plenty of that already. It also changed the people left behind, and I had seen evidence of that too. Wives who wait at home are subjected to pressures that the husbands never fully comprehend. In a way they are both at war, in their own private battlefields, fighting the age-old battles against rage, fear, temptation, and loss of hope. There are always, and perhaps in the grand scheme, just as in any battle, an equal number of casualties on either side of home. The numbing boredom of an existence lived under a constant threat of attack worked on the mind like a slow burning fire under a pressure cooker. To keep from blowing our lids we devised numerous outlets. I took my empty sea bag stuffed it with wads of mosquito netting and hung it from a beam in the ET shop. At night I would go in there and pound the hell out of it until I could barely lift my arms. During the day I ran down the beach a mile or so to the mined area and back again, running in the softer wet sand to exhaust myself faster. Then walking along the beach, with the summer waves gently lapping at my feet, I gazed out over the sea, far beyond the horizon. Mere water, though several million square miles, it was all there was separating Christine and me. Perhaps she was sitting on the opposite shore with her feet dangling in the cold Pacific, and our baby was wiggling her toes in her own amniotic sea. Sometimes it didn't seem far at all. I could almost reach out over the waves and touch them. And the distant rolling thunder, when I could lose myself in fantasy, was just a summer storm approaching, bringing with it heavy rain. The beach became a sanctuary and a salvation. Bound on both ends by large granite outcroppings and a scattering of rocky islets, it was at least three, maybe four miles long. Recently, I happened onto a web site of old Landsat photos. I was thrilled to find a view from space of our lovely beach lying beneath cotton puff clouds, that unmistakable thin white crescent stretched between tiny pixilated islands. The ghostly image had started its convoluted journey long ago as a parade of photons traveling through time and space, and now years later they marched in formation late one night across the mesmerizing surface of my Apple computer screen. My heart quickened as I strained to see a pixel-sized Receiver Site and wondered when the antiquated satellite was up there looking down--if it had been back then? Could I be lying on that thin white line, a microscopic dot staring up into my own searching eyes, so that I could look into the future and see how it would all turn out, so that I would know then what I know now? Or is it the other way around? The South China Sea is the perfect temperature for swimming, a turquoise blue aquatic paradise it was, which several of us accepted as an irresistible blessing. Surprisingly many of the men at the site preferred to spend their days inside the air-conditioned buildings, venturing out only to go to the clubs or the PX or to the nightly movies down at the base. Perhaps they were the true sailors, genetically coded for enclosed spaces and boredom. We often cajoled the cynical old Chief to join us for a swim. “Come on man, you don't know what you're missing." "All I need,” he said, “is a clear blue sky and a piece of ass, and fuck the clear blue sky." At the southern end of the beach, the receiver site was tantalizingly close to a little string of islands evenly spaced likes skipping stones out into deep shark infested waters. Wanderlust born of a need to escape and a primitive instinct to explore drew us to them, but without a boat we were stranded on the beach and could only wonder what lay out there just beyond our reach. We needed a boat. Kamshawing was how GIs acquired most Government Issue goods, a tradition as old as the military itself. What’s theirs is ours. One "kamshawed," for instance, the highly coveted Colt 45 revolvers that were definitely not government issue to us regular GIs. One of those babies would cost say, a stolen jeep, or a sizable quantity of Military Payment Certificates. MPCs were the phony looking currency we received as payment for our services to keep greenbacks off the burgeoning black market. A renegade army supply sergeant, known only as Sergeant John, stopped regularly at the site to display his wares and take orders from the back of a small panel truck. Sergeant John could get us just about anything we wanted from pistols to poncho liners and everything was haggled over, everything that is except the precious freeze-dried long range patrol rations known as LURP RATS. As the name implies they were intended for combat soldiers in the field, not us princes in the rear. They were quite good and sold well. Just add water, hot or cold, and in a few minutes you were enjoying a delicious beef stroganoff, spaghetti, chili con carne, chicken ala king-the perfect mid-watch snack. But what we really wanted was a boat, any kind of boat; what is a sailor anyway without a boat? It was our god-given right as seafarers to be out upon the water, not beached on some barren spit of sand. Resourceful as he was, Sergeant John couldn’t help us in the boat department as there was not much use for them in the Army, but what he did have for sale was a pair of jet fighter wing tanks, which were immediately seized upon as a distinct possibility for some kind of makeshift jet-age watercraft. We were going to get to those islands or perish trying. Upon delivery of the wing tanks the next day it was only a matter of hours before we had clouched together a seaworthy escape vehicle and dragged the aluminum boondoggle down to the beach behind a deuce-and-a-half. On her maiden voyage we wasted no time setting course for the little string of islands. But in our rush to get underway we had completely forgotten an essential component; without a rudder our craft didn't steer worth a damn, and the hastily made paddles were pathetically inadequate. It's difficult to discern the movements of the current you're drifting in and your distance from land until it becomes disturbingly obvious. Suddenly we were being swept out into open water, and with no patrol boats in site it was up to us get ourselves back to shore or before long we would be disappearing over the horizon into the vastness of the South China Sea. The stronger swimmers could have made it back on their own and radioed for help, but these were shark infested waters. Down at the Army beach, helicopters routinely shot marauding sharks that were lured in by the swimmers. Out in the open sea we were nothing but shark bait. Working in shifts, one man towed with a rope tied around his waist while another wearing flippers pushed from behind like an outboard motor. Meanwhile the relief crew caught their breaths and kept a sharp lookout for sharks. By nightfall we had made it back to the beach and were too exhausted to pull our boat out of the water so we just left the junk heap to the mercy of the sea. The next morning it was gone. In the passing weeks we snorkeled around the bend and beyond the granite outcroppings and discovered there an isolated realm of beautifully colorful fish, coral, giant clams, and underwater caves. But beyond earshot from our secret hideaway, other men plodded along their grisly march through a living hell. Back in the “World” angry young people were on college campuses clashing against the war-makers, but here, Bob, Joe, Jon, Ski and I, and eventually a few other adventurers were able to escape from all of that to a place of peace and solitude. Swimming with the fish, and diving from the high rocks, we forgot, in the endless hours we played there, where, and even who, we were. Bob Gray was my best friend. His sarcastic view of Navy life mirrored my own. Bob was a little jumpy. We all were to some degree, what with the rockets and sappers and general war zone paranoia all around, but more so with Bob. And you would think that under the circumstances we would naturally want to protect each other from unnecessary fears. But no, instead we fed into it, like chickens pecking at each other’s tender spots. He was irresistible game for us pranksters, including me. Mostly me I should say. One hot summer afternoon Bob and I were lazily finishing up installing a radio transceiver in a recently stolen jeep. (Receivers was issued only one jeep and a deuce-and-a-half, but we had as many as five jeeps, two deuce-and-a-halfs, a pick-up, a Ford scout and a tow truck, but I’ll explain that later). Anyhow, I had already hooked up the main unit under the rear seat while Bob finished wiring the controls under the dashboard. Picking up my tools I noticed, lying nearby, a two-foot long, dead "Fuck You" lizard, dried out and as stiff as a piece of beef jerky. It was called that due to its uncannily human-like call, which sounded something like this, ”phuckeew, phuckeew.” Early in the war, GIs had often mistaken the animal’s mating call for the brazen taunts of Viet Cong hiding in the jungle and then perpetuated the myth on the gullible. It was the same kind of lizard I had once mistaken for a small dinosaur. They grew quite large judging by footprints in the jungle that were as big as a man's hands. Someone had shot that one a couple days earlier and left it lying where it fell. A row of little white teeth protruded from the reptile’s tightly drawn lips, grinning demonically. Bob was on his back stretched casually across the front seat of the jeep, craning his head under the dashboard mindlessly whistling. I laid the dead “fuck you” lizard across his lap. "Here's your screwdriver Bob," I said, and then moved out of his fist range to watch what would happen when he eventually grabbed hold of it. Soon enough, Bob finished up what he was doing and then began to extricate himself. He reached for what he believed was his Phillips-head screwdriver and not recognizing the shape and feel of the thing is his hand, drew it up to his face to see what it was. Well, he almost tore that jeep apart getting out of it and ended up halfway across the yard jumping up and down while I was a safe distance away, doubled over, laughing my ass off. Another time I tricked him into sticking his hand down a crab hole on the beach. There were lots of smaller holes that were homes to the many sand crabs that scurried into them when anything came near. But this was the biggest one we’d seen and I was fairly certain it was a large sand crab, but when Bob wondered if maybe it was an edible clam I quickly agreed and suggested that he reach into the hole and retrieve it for dinner. Bob was all the way up to his shoulder when he suddenly let out a yelp and leaped into the air with a large angry sand crab vise-gripped onto his index finger. It’s surprising I had any friends at all. Buddies all the way from ET school, Bob and Joe had arrived together at Receivers a couple months before I got there. From the Mid-West, Joe was the only one of us ETs who took his work seriously. A true heartlander he was, wearing his starched jungle green uniform with "squared away" patriotic pride. Brushing off our endless ribbing, his attitude was, "I don't want to be here either, you assholes, but as long as I am, I'm doing my damned best." Also a newlywed, he missed his wife as much as I missed mine. Joseph always had that faraway back home look in his eyes. The bigger part of him was still back in the “World” on a little Ohio farm. Ski grew up in the mountains of Colorado. Resembling a rangier version of Elvis Presly, he was a guy who knew his way around and either people got out of his way or they wished they had. His mean streak showed itself whenever he drank too much and he liked to gamble when he drank. At the army clubs he was always giving one of us a wad of money for safekeeping. “Hold onto this for me will ya so I don’t lose it all. No matter what I say don’t give it back to me ‘til we leave. Promise?” I almost got into a fight with him one night over his own damned money. I wouldn’t give it back, like he said. Then he started to get mean. Finally I threw it at him after he threatened to beat it out of me. Jon Puis, a relative newcomer, was the athletic type and went straight to the beach and quickly became a beach bum too. Before long we were returning from the sea with fish, stingrays and spiny lobsters for dinner, no longer having only the swill sent from town to gag down at mealtime. We felt like the luckiest people alive in that wretched country, having discovered a kind of heaven on the outskirts of that hell. One afternoon Jon Puis found a sea snail that was about the size of a coconut. Being of French decent, Jon figured he knew everything there was to know about eating snails, and he plopped the big mollusk into a pot of boiling water. The women housekeepers who’d gathered around to watch, knew something important about cooking this particular species and urgently tried to convey it to Puis who arrogantly waved them off. When the snail appeared to be done, he let it cool a little, and then he pulled a huge hunk of vile looking flesh from the spiraling shell and then, like a connoisseur, Puis lifted the delicacy to his waiting lips. Mama san again tried to intervene. Again he held up his hand in protest. Mama san finally put her hand over her mouth and looked away in revulsion as Puis bit into the blob of meat and tore off a big chunk, and then chewed it with a look of, "I told you so," satisfaction. Moments later the gourmand was projectile vomiting snail flesh all over the kitchen area. The women ran out screaming with laughter. We all thought I was pretty damned funny, but the Vietnamese, with their endearing weakness for slapstick, were absolutely crippled with giggles for the rest of the day. When news of it reached the men working outside, peals of laughter broke out around the compound. They were still laughing about it in the back of the deuce-and-a-half when they left for their village at the end of the day. We employed about ten Vietnamese from Cam Rahn Village, paying them each $35.00 a month. I don't know if they were blood related, but they were all very close and ate lunch together in a circle on the floor of their little plywood "hooch" erected for them against the outside of the back fence. After lunch they always sprawled on grass mats and napped in the drowsy heat. While all of the men worked on various outdoor projects, the women flip-flopped about indoors, swabbing and waxing the floors, washing dishes, and generally keeping the place sparkling clean. For security reasons they were of course not allowed into the radio room, which was accessible to only those of us with Top Secret clearances. For a pittance extra, the women happily did our laundry, competing with each other for each man's business. They were entrepreneurs, always angling for a way to make a little extra money. Non-smokers were routinely hit up for their weekly cigarette ration, for which the women gave us the dollar a carton we paid at the PX, and then they resold them on the black market for ten times that amount. It was understood there was to be no hanky panky with these women, but occasionally when one was deemed irresistible, the dictum of the higher-ups was easily thwarted. As it was, they became members of the family, and we teased them like little sisters. In the dinning room we had one of those "Norris" milk dispensers which were as common throughout the Navy as water coolers. Not being milk drinkers themselves, most Vietnamese were repulsed by the bovine mammary gland secretions we unweaned Americans consumed in such quantities. One of the “mama sans,” however, did develop a healthy appetite for it and after a few months on a milk diet she ballooned out to nearly twice her original size; they all said it was the milk that did it. But she was thrilled to be plump in a thin society where everyone marveled at her fulsome beauty. The diet-conscious (or modestly fed) Vietnamese were incredulous at the quantities of food we consumed, and more so at what we "shit-canned" or gave to the dogs. Shit-can, they interpreted to mean, "You can have it." It was a mystery how they got all the contraband back into the village. We picked them up and delivered them back to the village/"relocation camp" every day in a deuce-and-a-half (We called it the "Nuoc Mam Express" after the fish sauce they sprinkled on everything they ate) and they were frisked coming and going at the gate. It was the way most villagers lived, fenced in by the Americans "for their own good," after their village had been searched and destroyed and their wells poisoned. This is how we went about winning their hearts and minds. The Vietnamese worked slowly, not lazily like most Americans thought, but with a slow grace imposed on them by the elements. One stiflingly hot afternoon I passed by a Seabee crew and some Vietnamese laborers busily filling sandbags along the roadside just outside of "town". There was an endless demand for them; sandbags were to Vietnam what bricks are to Boston. Well one of the impatient Seabees wasn’t satisfied with the progress and attempted to speed up the Vietnamese workers by demonstrating exactly how he wanted it done--"Mau, mau,” (faster, faster). The big shirtless American grabbed a shovel and hurriedly filled up several bags in a row, real fast one-two-three. After a couple minutes of that his eyeballs rolled back in their sockets and he toppled to the ground like a felled tree, head first into the scorching sand. Meanwhile the Vietnamese leaned on their shovels and jabbered at each other as the delirious Seabee was dumped into the back of a jeep and hauled down to the base infirmary. The sandbags themselves collapsed under the sun's merciless rays. Even the new specially designed plastic ones lasted but a few months under the brutal tropical sun. A Viet Cong’s AK-47 round could rip right through a sandbag, which was why they were always stacked in double rows. That wasn’t so with an M-16 round, which didn’t matter to us anyway since the V C didn’t have sandbag bunkers to hide behind. I shot an M-16 round into a sand-filled ammo can once just to see what would happen and the slug just disintegrated into a fine white powder. That was because the small caliber bullet traveled at such a high velocity and tumbled as it flew through the air. It was devilishly designed to maximize the amount of tissue damage when it zinged around inside the human body. An M-16 round obliterates bones and tears-up human flesh like a Waring blender on puree. The Geneva Conventions outlawed the use of "dumdum" and other mushrooming type bullets, considering them “inhumane," So the M-16 was developed by the Colt firearms company to get around that "technicality," which resulted in the creation of an automatic rifle capable of unprecedented devastation--still the weapon of choice in conflicts around the World. Shotguns were also prohibited, so in Vietnam the name was changed to "riot gun." Poison gas was also outlawed, so in Vietnam, tear gas was sprayed into tunnels and underground enemy bunkers in lethal quantities. They weren't actually "poisoned," they just choked to death as the Americans breathed through gas masks. Some lethal toxic mold spores were tried that couldn't be classified as poison gas. Turned out they didn't kill quickly enough to be very effective on the battlefield. Then there was the really nasty stuff like Agent Orange that poisoned everything it was sprayed on, which was nearly everything in Vietnam, including the crops, water supplies, and the people. Not to forget the jellied gasoline invented at Harvard during WW II by a brilliant scientist named Lewis Fieser. Dow Chemical peddled one of their biggest and vilest moneymakers under the pretty name "Napalm." Apparently turning people into human torches is considered "humane" under the Geneva Convention accords. A grim little army jingle ended with the horrific line, “Napalm sticks to kids.” And so it did. Chapter Twenty Three Back at “Receivers” we were getting hungry. The regulation meals that we were expected to survive on was prepared for us down town at the base mess hall (we had dry cereal and coffee for breakfast. The U.S. Navy could not function without coffee) and twice a day one of us had to drive down to pick up a stainless steel can with four pots of pig slop stacked inside. Typical navy chow, it wasn't that bad when compared to what the troops in the field got; green eggs and Spam for breakfast--for dinner, Salisbury steaks or soggy chicken cacciatore, instant mashed potatoes, a canned vegetable, instant soup, that kind of stuff. When it arrived at Receivers, after a bumpy ride up and down the asspounder, lashed to the back seat of a jeep, the whole mess had been shaken into an unappetizing mélange. "What kind of garbage we got in the trough today?" was what passed for grace at Receivers. More than once I saw a disgusted man throw a kettle lid across the room. One day when it was my turn, I was waiting at the back door of the commissary for the mess-cook to fill our slop bucket when I noticed a storeroom with shelves stacked with hundreds of shiny gallon tins. One can that caught my eye was labeled, "MUSHROOMS." I asked the mess cook how someone could get his hands on one of those big tins of mushrooms. He took one off the shelf and handed it to me. "What else would you like?" I showed up back at Receivers with a deuce-and-a-half full of goodies; gallon cans of vegetables, cherries and peaches, fresh onions, lettuce and potatoes, chicken, Hamburger patties, hot dogs, and steaks—big juicy ones from the officers mess! The Chief was perplexed. "What the hell do you think you're you going you do with all that food Ras?" I grew up with a stepmother who was quite talented with a skillet, having once worked as a short order cook, but being eager to free herself from some of her cooking chores, she enthusiastically allowed me to experiment with the rest of the family whenever I felt so inclined. I soon discovered cookbooks and something even more important--never try to explain to your step mom the reason why she always scorches her pudding. That was the last time that I was allowed to cook in her kitchen. At Receivers we had a stove, pots and pans, a refrigerator, and now a cook; I was nicknamed, "Mother Ras." Before long everybody was in on it. Everybody but the lifers that is—for the same reason they didn’t like the beach--it wasn't “regulation.” “If I wanted to cook, I’d have been a Cook instead of a Radioman,” grumbled old “Chief Fuck the Clear Blue Sky.” The lifers did however stop grumbling about the slop bucket--there now being an alternative. I never touched the garbage again. Even the diehards though, participated in the frequent barbecues; outdoor cooking was considered manlier. Now mealtime became something anticipated with pleasure, and often the focus of the day--and so too it was for the pooches as we tossed raw steaks at them until their bloated bellies could hold no more. They were the best-fed dogs in the world. The women began pulling whole boxes of steak and chicken straight from the refrigerator. "Shitcan?" "Shitcan it Mama san." There seemed to be no limit to us at the commissary so we passed our good fortune on to the Vietnamese workers. Daily life at Receivers gravitated toward institutionalized boredom. There was still work to be done; things broke down, new equipment to install, regular maintenance and such, but not enough to keep us three ETs busy past noon though. We did however have a supervisor named Roger, whose duty it was to think up unnecessary things for us to do--"Roger, Roger." In that case we'd phony up an excuse to go down town or over to Transmitters in search of a part. We became quite adept at killing time--the more the better. An hour, a day, a week, get rid of 'em any way you can. They all added up to year. A mile or two down the road another smaller beach lay nestled amongst a jumble of granite outcroppings that wrapped around the eastern shore of the peninsula all the way down to the naval base. The Army used that secluded beach for an In-country R&R spot, a retreat where battle-weary soldiers could soak their tired bodies in the soothing surf for a while, drench their tightly wound brains in liberal doses of alcohol, and for a few precious hours unravel themselves from the misery of the war. There was always music playing when we drove by on our way to town; usually it was the "Doors", "Hendricks", or the "Stones." [Still when I hear that same music today, I’m transported not Monterey or the Filmore East, nor to a college dorm, but back to Vietnam, and I can still smell the rich intoxicating aroma of Thai stick hanging in the hot, humid air.] What we noticed most about the secluded beach was that they had surfboards, lots of them. In its perverted wisdom the Army closed the beach at the end of summer just when the best waves began to arrive. Choosing not to risk the lives of its valuable boys to the dangerous ocean, the Army figured, if soldiers were to die, by God, it should be with noble purpose in the jungle, their lungs filled with blood, not with seawater while having some sissy fun at the beach. As the weather changed the surf picked up, and we started obsessing about all those Army issue surfboards going unused just down the road a piece, so late one night Joe, Ski, Bob, and I formulated a plan--a late night raid. It was time for action. But we had to be very careful not get caught. The burglary of an army post would not sit well with the new Station Chief who had recently arrived to relieve the retiring, “Chief Fuck the Clear Blue Sky." His resemblance to the no-nonsense president was the reason we nicknamed him “Chief Harry Ass Truman.” Already old Harry Ass was coming down pretty hard on us ETs for our un-military behavior, so, not wanting any more trouble we decided it best to wait until after he had turned in for the night and his light went out. It was the new Chief's duty to take charge of the site and square away his undisciplined crew by whatever means necessary and it was apparent from the moment he arrived that we ETs and the prickly little bastard were in for a nasty prolonged fight. Like the rest of us, he was bitter and angry for getting dumped, near the end of an impeccable career, out in the middle of fucking nowhere to take charge of a bunch of lollygagging malcontents. The chief was ready to explode and it was only a matter of time until a careless spark set fire to the short fuse of his volatile temper. All of us ETs had been model sailors as well(even I got excellent quarterly marks) with top-secret crypto clearances and all that high-falutin stuff. Now on our final fucking tour of duty, we were in no mood for any more Mickey Mouse Navy bullshit. We really didn’t give a "flyin' fuck" anymore. Morning muster had degraded into a daily disgrace. At the very last minute we hauled our scruffy asses out of our unkempt bunks and assembled in uneven rows in front of the phony howitzers. Hung over, unshaven and half awake, sloppily dressed in dirty T-shirts and rumpled trousers, no hats, and just barely able to stand in unlaced, unpolished boots, we slouched in the morning sun, yawning and rubbing our knuckles into hungover bloodshot eyes. The Chief started in an even tone: plan of the day, changes to be made, Charlie alerts, etc--routine business. As he scrutinized his raggedy crew the pitch and tone of his voice began to rise like the pressure of the blood flowing up the bulging veins of his clean-shaven neck. Before long the crimson tide had risen to the top of his head and he was in a seething rage screaming obscenities at us. We were the most disgusting bunch of slobs he'd ever encountered in his long naval career. "LOOK AT YOURSELVES!!! You dare to call yourselves United States Navy sailors?" Not anymore frankly, we called ourselves "Short Timers." Largely indifferent to the Chief's rantings, we took his barrage of insults like John Belushi with pencils stuck up his nose. Things were about to change though, but not in a way that anyone could have expected. It was a windy moonless night and the army beach lay deserted and utterly dark. Everything was locked up, but we had brought some tools and flashlights, and immediately went to work on one of the sheds. Then we heard some dogs. We couldn't see them but they sounded to us like wolves howling. Freaked us out a bit. In any case, we did have M-16s--always did. The dogs must have sensed it because soon they were quiet. We jimmied the door open and shined a flashlight light around inside. There they were, wall-to-wall surfboards--the mother load. We took a peek around the other buildings. In the largest one we found a big restaurant-size refrigerator, some tables and chairs and in another building all sorts of athletic equipment awaited liberation. Our hearts raced with excitement as we loaded up the jeep with a half dozen surfboards and whatever else we could cram into it, then we clattered back down to Receivers with the loot. The plan was to stash everything in the jungle for a few days and then claim we had picked it up at salvage. That was the usual method for laundering stolen property. Minutes later when we rolled up to the gate, it was Chief Harry Ass Truman himself who opened it for us. We were busted. Eyeballing the cargo heaped onto the jeep, the chief instantly launched into full cuss mode. "Just what in the mother-fucking hell have you assholes been up to now?” Well he had us by the balls alright, so we fessed-up, told him everything. Why the hell not? It was obvious. We were thieves standing there under the yard lights with our hands up, caught with the goods. And there the Chief held us as he tried to figure out how he was going to deal with his exasperating but essential ETs. While he deliberated, I envisioned four repentant souls blistering in the sun, nailed to surfboard crosses. We could forget about riding waves on these boards. May as well kiss the beach goodbye altogether. We screwed up big. Then Master Chief Petty Officer Harry Ass Truman made a masterful decision. Bless his bitter heart. "What else do they have down there?" Finally the Chief’s dour expression vanished and the very first smile cracked across that "buck stops here" face. "Let's get the deuce-and-a-half and go back," he snapped. It took us a few awkward seconds to reorient ourselves to the sudden and surprising sea-change that had just taken place. Had we corrupted the incorruptible? Like smoking cigarettes in the Boys room with the principal, it jarred loose our shaky moral foundations and set us on a whole new course. A short time later the Chief marched his giddy retinue of thieves back into the Army compound. Under Chief Harry Ass Truman’s supervision the next week was spent remodeling the dining room. To create a nautical touch, we blowtorched the institutional green paint off the wood trim and the wainscoting and then gave it all a coat of spar varnish and then we covered the walls with a fresh coat of homey paint. We even hung cafe curtains. Why, with all the new tables and chairs, one might have mistaken “Receivers” for a rustic Nantucket lodge. The army refrigerator was installed and a grocery list posted on its big door. When everything was finished we made plans for a celebratory party and sent invitations to Transmitters, the Air Force cable head, and the Main Station-- "RSVP." The festivities were proudly hosted by the cocky little interior decorator, Master Chief Petty Officer, Harry Ass Truman--our new leader. Chapter Twenty Four In the following weeks we cleaned up our act, somewhat, though more out of respect for the Chief than for ourselves and certainly not for the U.S. goddamned Navy. Now we would do anything for the man. Morning muster became a soapbox for Chief Harry Ass Truman's campaign. "Men, I was thinking last night before I fell asleep, what we need is a new clubhouse." No blueprints were required; the whole picture was inside the Chief’s crew-cut head, drawn up in the darkness of his room as he lay in bed late at night--even the name. We had seven bunkers scattered around the perimeter of the compound, so fittingly the clubhouse would be called "Bunker 8." To each man the Chief dictated a list of materials to be acquired, either by requisition, kamshawing, and pilfering or outright thievery: Lumber, nails, electricals, concrete, corrugated tin, window screens. Another crewmember and I went up to the firing range and shot off about 1500 rounds of mark-79 grenades just to make room in the big metal ammunition conex box for BEER. It took us all morning. I calculated the cost in dollars equivalent to a nice brand-new house back in the “World.” With welcome fervor we embraced our new mission, finishing the clubhouse in less than a week. "Bunker 8" resembled an old western saloon. I don't remember if it had swinging bar doors; I think it did. Each of us took turns tending bar, charging the going rate of ten cents for either a mixed drink or an ice-cold beer. No money was made at the bar, but the house took a percentage of the poker tables. Word quickly spread up and down the peninsula of the nightly poker games, which started as an entertaining pastime, with pots of no more than five or ten dollars, but soon high stakes gamblers sniffed out the money changing hands at “Receivers” and they took over the tables, raising many pots to hundreds of dollars and higher. We got ten percent. Before long, “Bunker 8” had grown into a lucrative business and a new ET named McGuire became the permanent bartender. After a while the rest of us got bored with it. It wasn't much fun tending bar after all, especially for a bunch of cutthroat outsiders. After a while, there got to be too many hot tempers in the clubhouse, backed-up by too much alcohol and way too many guns. MPCs (Military Payment Certificates) were real dollars all right, the way we earned them, but some GIs spent them like “Monopoly” money. Instead of portraits of Washington and Franklin, the "funny money" was decorated with pictures of pretty Vietnamese girls, submarines, and jet fighters, which made it hard to take the money seriously. They could however be traded, ten to one, on the black market for good old American greenbacks. In the Seventies, several cases came to light involving army sergeants who had amassed immense fortunes in Vietnam by running illicit clubs in converted barracks. There were a number of these clubs at the sprawling Army base up at the top of the peninsula. They had the rough-hewn look of the Long Branch saloon on the T.V. western "Gun smoke" and the ambience of the "Star Wars" bar. One often had the feeling when frequenting such establishments that it was the natural inclination of most men, when removed from all civilizing influences, to regress into this netherworld culture. Everyone showed up packing loaded weapons. Instead of riding into Dodge on horses, parched and edgy gunslingers arrived at these watering holes in a cloud of dust sitting behind the wheels of jeeps and deuce-and-a halfs. The loners who ran the clubs were hucksters who regarded their fellow GIs as only a source of easy revenue. The suckers were drawn in to these joints like flies to a ripe odor, and then cleaned out and sent staggering drunk out the door and back down the dusty road. And that's the way most of the gamblers left "Bunker 8" too. I don't know for sure, but my guess is, someone eventually departed Receivers with a big pile of greenbacks. McGuire, I recall, wasn’t as eager as most to go back to the states when his time was up. And so, he signed on, with much local fanfare, for an additional year, in a novel swearing-in ceremony up in the sixty-foot high guard tower with the CO. The rest of us witnessed it from below and took snapshots of the two idiots up there saluting each other. A lot of gambling and other forms of betting took place down town as well. Everybody at the Naval base naturally assumed that the Main Station, as NAVCOMMSTA Headquarters, was the original source for all radio traffic coming into our sector, including UPI, which carried the national sports scores to Vietnam directly from the United States. In fact most of the people down town didn’t even know the Receiver Site existed, which set the stage for a devious but lucrative scam. One of our radiomen set-up a simple scheme with another radioman at the Main Station. It was strictly against regulations (Navy as well as FCC) to intercept radio broadcasts, delay their transmission and later present them as live. But then this was after all the anything-goes free-for-all known as Vietnam. The Main Station looked like Off Track Betting on race day as bettors gathered outside, totally oblivious to the fact that UPI broadcasts were being held up at Receivers until all bets had been placed down town, and that two radiomen were on telephone land lines playing the suckers like a sidewalk shill game. In a short order those two hustlers raked in enormous sums of money, but inevitably they got ratted out and were transferred elsewhere after numerous threats were made against their lives. Our clubhouse kitty (the plank owners picked-over portion anyhow) was to be spent collectively. Thumbing through the dog-eared Sears and Roebuck catalogue, we order merchandise directly through the Fleet Post Office in San Francisco. An order was placed and two or three weeks later mail call would produce, amongst the letters from home, a new spear gun, a basketball and hoop, a deep fryer to cook the fish that we shot with the spear gun, and then one afternoon a large wooden crate arrived; packed inside was a shiny brand spanking new "Lawn boy" lawnmower. In the shadow of one of the dummy howitzers the four old Vietnamese men were languorously snipping away at a little patch of grass when the bunch of us excitedly appeared following in the wake of Chief Harry Ass Truman who stood proudly at the helm the gleaming "Lawn boy" as if he were the captain of the “USS Enterprise.” The old men had never seen such a thing as what was rolling across the yard toward them, but they did seem to grasp the ramifications of it. Chief Harry Ass Truman yanked on the cord a couple of times and soon the "Lawnboy" sputtered to life. Then to the crew's applause, and the papa san's astonishment, he marched the full length of the front yard spraying grass into the air, and accomplishing in a few seconds what a quartet of old men couldn't do in an entire day. The old men squatted on the lawn contemplating the simple tools each still held in his gnarled hand, then looked up at us with quizzical beetle nut grins, and wondered what their next assignment would be. Gentlemen, welcome to the twentieth century. One of the hardest things about being in Vietnam was living in a world without women. Other than the ubiquitous Playboy center-fold beauties which adorned every cubicle wall and the precious photographs of our wives and girlfriends, the only "round eyed" women any of us saw that entire year were the periodic female visitors sent by the Red Cross- the "Donut Dollies as we called them." They arrived every other week or so to refresh our dwindling masturbatory memories of American womanhood. Still, it was the women we left behind that we thought about during the day and dreamed of at night. Those distant muses lived perpetually vivid in our hearts and minds. They were the one sacred thing in that lonely profane existence. But men need to be in the presence of women, if for only a brief visit. Otherwise a two dimensional one will do, if that’s all you’ve got. One day a new arrival fresh from “The World” demanded that a certain crewmember remove a certain Playboy Bunny pin-up hanging above his bunk after making the preposterous assertion that the naked girl pictured was in fact his fiancé, his very own real-life playmate. It is quite common in the military for young men to glamorize or embellish their previous lives. No harm in it really. It adds a little color and fantasy to a drab reality. But this claim was an order of magnitude bolder than one of those old crocodile-wrestling bullshit stories we were accustomed to and didn’t really believe anyway, but enjoyed listening to non-the-less. The new guy may as well have tried to convince us that he was born of the Virgin Mary and until he could provide better proof to his incredulous new mates than a tattered photo of a vaguely similar but plain looking girl he carried in his wallet, the centerfold would remain exactly where it belonged, securely pinned to the wall above ET2 Kreseski's top bunk, and Ski was not one to trifle with about such matters. The new guy threw a fit every time he looked into Ski’s cubicle. But Ski wasn’t budging. Then one day when a final firm “please” didn’t get the man any satisfaction a fistfight nearly broke out, but the new guy’s survival instincts kicked in just in the nick of time. He suddenly understood that the burly, duck-tailed, Pole would very happily have kicked his sorry butt all over the compound. To make his case the new guy wrote home for more pictures, which we all scrutinized the minute they got there. “Hurry up man, open it.” As far as we could tell, they were just more pictures of him and his rather plain girlfriend looking no different than anyone else’s girl. No more no less. Nothing to get hot about. "Bullshit, that ain't her. No way are those the same two chicks." In private we grudgingly admitted that it could just possibly be her. There was a similarity. But there was also a lot more at stake here than one’s man’s feelings for his girlfriend. We all had an interest in the outcome of this issue so the pinup stayed put. What was required here was, positively no question about it, incontrovertible proof, and that, we broke it to the new guy gently and faux-ernestly, meant a good hard look at his girlfriends tits, for objective comparison-in so many words. A couple weeks of bickering went by and then one afternoon a large Manila envelope arrived at mail call. It contained several glossy photographs of the new guy’s naked girlfriend in a variety of poses. Presumably he didn't tell her he would be dealing them out like playing cards to his mates. We took them straight into Ski’s cubicle and crowded around the controversial picture. "Hey, anybody can clearly see that those are not the same tits," Ski explained like he was a medical expert on breasts. He held one up like a doctor comparing X-rays next to the pinup still hanging above his bunk. "Look here, see the size of that nipple. Now look at this one. It ain't her man. No way. Those are completely different boobs" We slobbered all over the new guy’s fiancée’s breasts until he grabbed them out of our hands. The poor man just went bananas. Eventually though he gave up and resigned himself to our skepticism. And so Ski kept his favorite centerfold right where everyone could admire it, even the new guy himself after a while. He seemed like he really didn't give a damn anymore. We waited a decent amount of time before stirring things up again and then, admitted off-handedly one day, that just perhaps, we had been wrong. Truth was, we simply wanted to have another peek at the tits again. But it was difficult regaining the new guy’s trust after all we had put him through. He was not about to let anybody look at them again just for the heck of it. No way was that gonna happen. But after persuasively explaining to him that we could have overlooked a crucial detail that just might clear up the matter once and for all, he reluctantly agreed to let us have one more look at his fiancés beautiful breasts-and there was no question whatsoever about that fact. “Well it’s about damned time,” he grumbled. Carefully thumbing through the photos again, we scrutinized them in much greater detail this time than before, one by one in the ET shop under a desk-lamp with a big built-in magnifying glass. Only when we grew tired of looking at them and could sense that the new guy was losing his patience, did we slap them into his hands and render our verdict. “Nope, that definitely is not the same girl.” "You assholes just go fuck yourselves!" Well of course it was, but we never did give in. It was, after all, a violation of an unwritten code to lay personal claim to an icon of American beauty. Those playmates were the girls next door and they belonged to everybody. The flesh and blood "Donut Dollies" arrived in a jeep every two weeks to entertain us with children’s party games, like "pin the tale on the donkey" and guessing the number of beans in a jar. Newcomers to Receivers were always put off at first by the insult that these two Red Cross girls in frumpy dresses, who wouldn't have turned any of our heads back in the “World,” were the subjects of so much adulation way out here at the lonely outskirts. My first time, I preferred to stay in the ET shop and work on a broken crypto set or something. "Have fun you knuckleheads." I had several photographs of my wife to look at. I took a whole roll on the day I left just to make sure. But after a while, the unhealthy absence of the humanizing influence of women becomes unbearable and I too greeted them warmly at the front door of our rustic lodge. "Hello Dollies, welcome to our humble abode!” We were gentlemen enough not to call them that to their faces. It was refreshing to hang out for an hour (exactly) with women who spoke the same language (well not quite, even though we did tidy up our rough vocabulary a little bit for them) and didn't pick their noses in your face. The "Donut Dollies," who in ironic fact never once brought donuts or anything else to eat for that matter, coyly turned down any invitations for socializing beyond these brief, officially sanctioned, morale-building visits. We suspected that their Red Cross contract precluded fraternizing with us enlisted pukes. They weren’t allowed to distract us from our important duties. Could have been, I suppose, that they simply viewed us as just another pack of horny dogs. Officers, on the other hand, were frequently seen picking them up in jeeps where they lived with nurses and some other American women in a heavily fortified and guarded trailer park over at the big Army base. All American women in Vietnam were automatically granted officer status as if they possessed, by virtue of lacking a penis, innate superiority conferred by nature itself. As expected they were also the first to be life-boated back to the States when the American Titanic began to sink nose first. "Hope you boys make it back okay," blowing us empty kisses. Chapter Twenty Five There were plenty of Vietnamese girls willing to spend some time with GIs, for a modest fee that is. By this time most everyone had forgotten about the razor blades up the vagina and other such boloney. You could meet them in bars and in the enlisted men's clubs and have a good time with them, but you'd better not fall in love with one, which is exactly what happened to one Lester Hibbs. “Roger-Roger” Cooper, our starchy supervisor, was an irritating by-the-book lifer son of a bitch, one of those big shots who stayed in the Navy only because he couldn’t make it on the outside, which is, by the way, how we viewed all lifers. That was until his wife threatened to divorce him unless he gave up his career. Many military wives enjoy having the old man gone for the same reason the men do, but Roger's wife was different. He was the man for her and she wanted him home. So when his tour of duty sadly came to an end, Roger Cooper made the painful decision not to reenlist. After Roger left, we didn't have a supervisor for a while; we didn't really need one and certainly didn't want one. Then one day ET Petty Officer First Class Lester Hibbs shows up. Hibbs was another lifer, and like the rest of us he was none too happy about being dumped at lonesome town, but without a trace of sarcasm he said it was, "great to be here." As it turned out though, he wasn't any more interested than we were in the job he was sent to do. But his being a career man, that kind of attitude didn't bode well for his future. As part of the welcoming process, we decided to take our new supervisor over to the army side for a "drink" at the Enlisted Club. The cocktail waitress serving our table that evening was a pretty teenage girl in a tight little silk dress, one of those with the slit up the side. Her name was Soon. Like all of the girls who worked the tables, she was engaging and flirtatious. As we ordered a round of twenty drinks for the five of us, Soon casually kinked her tiny hips toward Hibbs and delicately placed her petite hand on the man’s shoulder. Hibbs seemed to stop breathing, then he just leaned back in his chair with a placid smile on his face and sighed. His eyes then glazed over as Soon’s hot little hand rested casually but tenderly on his shoulder. His smitten heart flopped out of his chest and melted into a puddle on the table. The winsome Soon coolly wiped up the mess with a bar towel and walked away with it. That was the beginning of the end for Hibbs--and nearly for me too. In the following days, Hibbs urged us back over to the EM club, to Soon's table. He fell hard for the perky little waitress, but despite his exorbitant tips, she began to pay an uncomfortable amount of attention to someone else--me. I did my best to act cool about it, so as to not stir up trouble with my new supervisor. Aloofness, though, is a strange and powerful attractant with the opposite sex and one that is absolutely impossible to contrive to attract or to repell. It wasn’t working. One day Soon asked me, point blank, if I would be her "boyfriend." Across the table Hibbs seethed behind a jocular façade and slammed down another empty glass. Hoping to de-fuse the situation, I pulled a snapshot of Christine from my wallet and showed it to her and then instantly realized that I had made a stupid and transparent mistake. Soon snatched it from my hand and studied it jealously with all the other girls who had gathered in a circle fussing over her like she had just been jilted. Hibbs gulped down another one of his drinks and simultaneously drilled me with a pointed gaze that cast serious doubt on any further friendship between us. That was my last trip to the EM club for a while. But the trouble didn't end there. Every day the drinking crew returned to Receivers with reports that Soon had been asking about me. When will I come to the club again? Did I still like her? She wrote girlish notes on napkins that were conveyed to me with glee by my mischievous mates. It was then that Hibbs decided I was the enemy and began to wage his own personal war. He started by giving me the worst assignments. One day a new piece of equipment arrived. Like Fred McMurray said in "The Caine Mutiny," It was designed by geniuses to be run by idiots. An "expert" came with it and he stayed for a week to instruct us on its installation and use. Trouble was, the expert didn't know shit about the strange machine, and when he left neither did any of us. Nonetheless, Hibbs decided that it looked like a pretty good project to keep "Lover Boy" occupied. About the size and weight of an upright piano, the machine twinkled with a universe of tiny lightbulbs and had a very large number of switches and dials on its control panel. Its purpose was to analyze the reflectivity of the ionosphere: a simple concept, if you think of the ionosphere as a mirror that is sometimes flat and smooth, usually at night, and at other times rippled like a fun house mirror-when the sun beats down on it. The ionosphere machine bounced radio waves off the mirror and determined with its electronic brain which frequencies were most suitable to use at any given time. Anyway that's what the expert said. A spaghetti-like tangle of wires poured from the back of the machine in every possible size and color-combination. I had not the dimmest clue how to install the contraption. What I did have were tools, a big stack of technical manuals, and the rest of the year to finish the job, which wasn't quite what I estimated it would take to get the monster up and running. What I also had was a growing contempt for ET1 Hibbs, who by this time was spending most his time in an apartment he rented up in nearby Nha Trang for Soon and her "ailing" grandmother. Soon was always asking him for money for the old mama san’s “treatments,” which were a mystery to no one except Lester Hibbs himself. At least it kept him out of our hair. And it didn’t seem to bother the Chief any either that his leading ET would disappear for several days at a time. Time crept along. Thanksgiving was around the corner and we had been planning a big feast for a couple of weeks already. We kamshawed a big fat turkey from the officer's mess and stocked up on our favorite victuals. We could have gotten a turkey at the enlisted mess, but we figured the officer's was better. Even turkeys had to serve, so to speak, in Vietnam. The big bird arrived frozen, so we thawed it in the Army refrigerator. It was hard to walk by without cracking the door to check on the gobbler perched inside, if only to confirm that we actually had the big beautiful bird. Every conversation turned toward the turkey--stuffing or not, roast it in the oven or on a spit? Suddenly everyone was an expert. Christine would be at Granny's with the whole family. Granny was in her seventies but still she did most of the cooking herself, even the half dozen prize-winning pies. When I thought of home cooked it was a toss-up between my own Grandmother's house and Granny's. This wouldn't be Grandma's turkey dinner, but close to it. No outsiders were invited. Thanksgiving was "family" only. The traditionalists lost the vote for the oven and so we roasted the turkey outdoors, on a spit. Never was a bird more fussed over than that one. Hovering over the plump fowl like expectant fathers, beers in hand, we discussed ways to catch the drippings and argued over cooking techniques like whether or not to salt and how often to turn. Each man stood watch at turning and basting and, as the hours went by, our bird slowly turned a glistening golden brown and by the afternoon had roasted into a more beautiful thanksgiving turkey than we had dared to imagine. And the aroma! Sparing no effort to create the illusion of home, suffice it to say, we did not stint: Joe's mom’s mashed potatoes, Bob's moms’ savory stuffing, Mother Ras's mom’s home made pies, (cherry and peach). Gunner harvested some corn from his private garden. We had red and white wine, napkins, tablecloths, the works, maybe candles--I don't remember. Chief Harry Ass Truman tapped his glass and then bracing himself against a rising flood of emotion made a short but meaningful speech on the significance of the day. After that, by God, he actually said a real and heart-felt grace. We could not have been a happier bunch of GIs. It was our very best day. "Hail to the Chief!" I had just forked a juicy piece of turkey meat when an impatient jeep honked at the front gate. It was Hibbs. Sitting next to him was the lovely Miss Soon in a white dress and a sun hat. Sure took the wind out of my sails. Hibbs had the look of a man who drinks too much. He was a big man and always unkempt with hair sprouting wildly from every part of his body except atop his freshly trimmed head. This day, dripping with sweat in the open jeep, he wore a crisply starched and pressed uniform which only served to emphasize his general filthiness. The sight of him next to the pretty Soon pained the senses. He entered the room like a blowhard prizefighter and plopped down noisily at a table without even introducing his date and ate without washing his grubby hands. The man was a pig. When Hibbs went to the head to relieve himself, Soon tiptoed over to my table to say hello, and then once again asked me, in front of everyone this time, and with growing tears in her eyes, to be her boyfriend. It was an innocent schoolgirl crush. She could not have been more than seventeen, and less emotionally developed in courting skills than the average American girl her age. The Vietnamese culture was quite different from our own in matters of romance, which made it all the more repugnant that she was with Hibbs, nearing middle age and married on top of it all. I didn’t know what the hell to say and every man in the room was waiting for me to say it. I turned crimson and flipped the bird at snickers behind my back. Then there were footsteps and Hibbs reentered the dinning room just in time to see Soon dart back to their table. Through the rest of dinner the pouting little girl sniffled as Hibbs plotted to destroy me. The next afternoon I was heading towards the radio room to resume work on my interminable project when I heard Hibbs coming down the hall, not far behind. The radio room was built like a vault. On the door was a small metal box with four numbered buttons inside. To get in, you had to put your hand into the box and press the buttons in the proper sequence. The code was changed every morning before the eight O’clock watch and the only way to get the new code was from inside the radio room. It was not to be uttered outside the radio room. Otherwise you had to ring the buzzer and someone would let you in. I already knew the code, but Hibbs had been gone most of the day and so he did not yet have the new code. Pretending like I didn’t know he was coming, I quickly closed the door behind me. Then I did something even more devilish. This was the only time that I can remember intentionally provoking the man, but I thought he had it coming. So I told the radio operators not to open the door for him and they were happy to oblige. Anything to liven up the day. As his ringing grew increasingly impatient I began to think that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, but hell, what more could he do to me. He already had me tied, ball and chain, to that “God-damned-son-of-a-bitchin’” ionosphere machine. Let the bastard ring. Finally when he started pounding on the door, one of the radiomen decided it was enough already and let him in. Back in the corner I was working like Sisyphus on the ionosphere machine when Hibbs sidled up to me and in little more than a whisper informed me that he had drafted a letter that morning down at the Main Station recommending that I be transferred to the "Delta." He'd heard they were scouting for an ET on the notorious repair barge anchored precariously in the middle of the Mekong River Delta, and he had one to spare. Considered the worst possible duty, the barge, which was under nearly constant attack, was where all the river rats operating on the Mekong went to get their damaged electronics repaired. The big steel-clad barge was enclosed within a cage of thickly woven steel cable. Incoming rounds supposedly were detonated as they struck the mesh, thus deflecting most of the impact. Some relief that was, presumably, to the unfortunate souls toiling inside on complex electronic circuitry. The Navy like all military establishments doesn't give its members any choice in decisions of ultimate destiny. That's the whole idea. You must do what you superiors demand of you. You go where they say, no matter what. Now, here I was, three and a half years into my hitch and that mother fucker was going to screw me up big time, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. Then suddenly Hibbs is granted emergency leave back to the States. It had something to do with his wife in San Diego. The day after he left, a message came through to our CO that Hibbs had been arrested by the shore patrol in San Francisco for trying to kick in his wife's front door. They were sending him back to Cam Ranh Bay on the next flight out. It was no secret by the time he got back to Receivers a few days later, but no one said anything. "Had some family business to take care of," he said. Then off he went straight up to Nha Trang again to see Soon, who by now was bleeding the man of every last penny. Seemed like the only time we ever saw Hibbs anymore was when he came back to borrow a few bucks or stir-up trouble. Then unexpectedly Hibbs returned one morning in the dark early hours. It was my turn for the tower watch and he knew it. The routine was always the same; shine the searchlight around for a while, look through the starlight scope, scan the beach, don't set up any predictable patterns, try to stay alert in the muggy darkness. The mosquitoes helped keep you awake. Those little bloodsuckers could bite right through jungle greens. Some of them carried malaria. There was a telephone and a walkie-talkie linking the tower to the front gate sentry. We checked in with each other every half hour, sometimes for no other reason than to just chat on the phone, killing the dead time through the long stupefying boring hours. Everybody joked about jerking off up there in the lonely solitude of the tower. The sentry made frequent roving patrols around the compound and fired the several dozen illumination-rounds each night with an 81 mm mortar, momentarily breaking the quiet monotony with a sharp explosion and a pop of the brilliant shell out beyond the beach. It dangled in the air for a while from a little white parachute and bathed the surf in harsh eerie light against a black backdrop of blackened sea and sky and left a thin white trail of smoke to mark its passing. No one could recall who had hoisted an army cot up into the tower and no one admitted to sleeping on watch, but everyone knew that everyone did. At three or four in the morning you'd want to sit down for a minute--rest the feet a while. Then the eyes needed a rest too. It was the war zone, sure, but we were growing complacent. I suppose some of the guys even got stoned up there--often sounded like it when you talked to them on the walkie-talkie a 4 am. “Far out man, did ya see that meteorite, over? Wow I feel like I’m floatin’ up here in outer space, over to you and out.” On this particular night, Hibbs hoped to catch me off-guard. When the roving watch opened the gate, Hibbs asked him for the keys to the back gate. He was going to catch me sleeping on watch and send me to LBJ (the acronym for Long Binh Jail, the military prison for GIs in Vietnam)--get rid of me once and for all. The gate guard alerted me with a jingle of the phone. When I answered there was nothing but a dial tone so I knew something was up. I was sitting on the edge of the cot trying to ring back, when Hibbs' big fat head suddenly popped up at top of the ladder. I couldn't actually see his face because he was shining a bright flashlight into my eyes. He screamed. “I got you Ras! I got you Ras!" If he'd been a VC I'd have been a dead ET. Adrenalin shot through me like a lightning bolt. I yelled at him. “Get that goddamned light out of my eyes!" He kept shining the light and screaming at me over and over, "I got you Ras! I got you Ras! I'm going to send your ass to LBJ. I’m going to send your ass to LBJ.” I stepped sideways over next to the two thousand watt searchlight, aimed it directly at Hibb's face and flipped the switch. That did it. He went absolutely berserk. Then he threatened to throw me out of the tower and started to climb over the bulletproof steel wall. "Okay," I yelled back. "Come on you son of a bitch, we'll see who goes over the wall! Come on!" "You're ass is grass Ras. You're dead. You are fucking dead." Hibbs was still screaming blindly at the spot where I had been standing next to the light, but I had moved over to my M-16. I grabbed it and threw a round into the chamber, and then I pointed it too directly at Hibb's face, and yelled. "No Hibbs I'm going to kill you! I'm going to fucking kill you!" At this point in the narrative I'm tempted to change course and follow a fictitious heading from here on. What if I had shot? It was mostly bluff, but what if in the fury of the moment, my trigger finger had slipped and I blew his head off? Would I have claimed that I mistook Hibbs for a VC, and sounded red alert to conceal my crime, then live with shame and nightmares for the rest of my life! Or maybe I would have pleaded insanity. I was definitely insane, albeit insanely angry, which probably doesn't qualify. He did not in fact catch me sleeping. I can thank the other watch for that--and did. That could probably have been proved. But I did indeed threaten a superior Petty Officer's life and that was a court martial offense in itself, worthy of a trip to LBJ. Anyway it was bad enough, so I'll just continue the story as it happened. "You son-of-a-bitchin' asshole! You shit-assed bastard!" I let Hibbs have it as he scrambled down the ladder, threatening to shoot him at every rung, and I continued as he sprinted toward the back gate. ”Run you cocksucker!” Whether once or fifty times, it didn't matter any more. I had threatened to shoot a senior petty officer. The Mekong River Delta, LBJ, or Leavenworth, didn’t matter to me at that moment. I didn't give a fuck any more. Screw him. Screw everything. Instead of going down at dawn, I stayed up in the tower until late that morning; didn't see any point in rushing my fate. It was unusually quiet around the site and several times I caught my friends looking up at me, wondering if I had completely lost it, which was pretty much what I was wondering too. Eventually I decided to climb down the ladder and see what was in store for me below. "Jeeze Ras, what happened man? You are in big trouble." Most of the guys didn't say anything. Someone said the Chief wanted to see me first thing, so I went into his office and he told me to sit down. I started to say something and he said, "Ras, don't say anything." "I started to say something again, and he said. "Ras, listen to me. Don't talk about this with anyone and don’t worry about it." I didn't exactly feel like talking anyway. He said I could go. I didn't know what he meant really, but I felt better. I went to my bunk and fell asleep. I never did talk about it. We didn't see Hibbs for a week or so. Then he came back one morning and quietly packed his bags and left. He had been transferred to that barge in the Mekong Delta, nearly three hundred miles away from Receivers and from Soon. He stopped by “Receivers” one afternoon several weeks later on trip to visit Soon and bullshitted that it was great down there. Then we never saw him again. Some time later we heard through the scuttlebutt that he had been discharged from the Navy with a mental disability and sent home. Years later as I watched "The Caine Mutiny" with Humphrey Bogart as the deranged Captain Queeg, who fell apart under the strain of war, it made me wonder just what role I played in Hibbs' breakdown and if there was any way I could have helped prevent it. Hibbs, like all of us there, was subjected to pressures that for him proved unbearable. Maybe if he'd spent more time at the beach with us and less time with Lolita, he would have survived too. But then, perhaps Hibbs did survive. I hope so. I had never really considered it until now. Hell, Soon could be his war bride for all I know, and they could be living happily on a barge in Sausilito. Makes me a little happier to think of it that way--after all these years. Despite everything that happened between us, and it was all just petty nonsense, we went through the bigger thing together. Chapter Twenty Six By the time the monsoons arrived, letters between Christine and me began to thin out. Recently I was watching another movie. This one was about Ruben "Hurricane" Carter, who was wrongly imprisoned for murder. His wife would visit him as often as she could, but separated from him by a window and always with a guard present. One day he asked her not to come back, said he couldn't bear it any longer. She didn't understand, but I sure did. The heart in love is a powerful thing indeed, but it can stand only so much before it breaks completely, if you can't be with the one you love-and it began to feel like I never would be again. You can learn to get along without the things you need. Tie up a dog outside--he'll stop barking eventually. Sept. 14,1969 Dear Christine, Hi honey. Just sitting here missing you. It’s Sunday night, the end of another week. Actually I suppose it is the beginning. Today was just another workday. We got two more puppies yesterday from the Army. I’m not sure what brand they are, but they’re cute little fellas. Not that we need more dogs, but someone has to take care of them. They are fun to have around. I went on a hike into the hills today to a swimming-hole back in the jungle. It’s pretty back there with all the different kinds of trees. I took my rifle just in case I ran into a pig or a tiger. I’m in bed now. Love I’ve been missing you so much. How I wish it were time for me to come home. Still we have the fall, winter, and spring ahead of us and already it seems like we’ve been apart at least a year. The part I dread the most about being apart is that after while I sort of get used to it. I hate the feeling. It’s terrible to wake up in the morning and not expect to have you around. I think it’s even worse than expecting you to be near and finding that you’re not. It doesn’t mean that I’m thinking of you any less. You are always on my mind. I love you Christine and I need to be home with you again. ‘Night Love Your husband Charles I should have been prepared for the day-to-day erosion of my spirit, having already endured the slow unraveling of the threads that bound me to my mother’s heart. But then perhaps it was that very ordeal, that terrible feeling throughout all those tender years of being forgotten and ultimately, irrevocably, left by my mother, which caused me to lose hope and weakened my resolve. I couldn’t be there for Christine any more than she could be there for me, and so through the darkness of the slowly passing months, we burned candles for each other and made our ways alone. After a while it became too painful to think about her and I began to try not to. As time began to do its work, I started to forget and so did she. Like a double-edged scalpel, time cuts cleanly as it goes and so thoroughly by its sharpness, that in the end there remains a long deep scar running the full length of its passage. The heavy weather brought storms and the storms made big the waves that we had long been waiting for. Up to now, the easy rollers that curled lazily along the beach in the waning days of summer had been sufficient for our meager skills. Now big breakers tumbled against a graying backdrop of turbulent skies. We threw the boards at them and paddled out to wait for the ones that rose up like freaks above the rest. Our boards took us to Oahu and California. Riding the waves we could imagine ourselves to be anywhere--anywhere else. Gradually it dawned on us that we were somewhere--somewhere special in its own right. Eventually we fell in love with the beach on the South China Sea. Love the one your with baby, love the one you’re with. [After I went home, I would dream of being back on that distant shore, watching heavenly waves roll in, one carefree wave at a time. Then I started having a different kind of dream--getting sent back every couple of weeks. That went on for thirty years and I probably wouldn't have minded the dreams so much had I been able to surf a little while I was there.] One day a typhoon blew in and nearly washed out the ass-pounder, which doubled as a breakwater and dike, our only defense against the angry sea. A day later the wind had subsided, the chop was gone, and all that remained of the storm were magnificent steel-blue waves crashing onto the beach and pounding it into a steep, narrow slope. The surf was up--I mean really up. Only a fool would try to ride one of those ugly mothers. I couldn't get anyone to join me when I decided to try what was, by all appearances, a reckless stunt, and no one cared to watch a disaster, or wanted to feel obliged to risk a dangerous rescue, and I couldn't be talked out of it either, so I went to the beach alone. "You’re crazy Ras," somebody shouted as I walked through the gate with a favorite board cradled under my arm. I jambed my board into the sand, leaned back against it and watched the mesmerizing breakers lunge at me, one after another, taunting me, pushing me to do the foolhardy. I just sat there trying to muster the courage to back up my own bravado. It just wasn't in me. I didn’t have the balls nor the skills. I was always the kid who took forever to jump off the high rock. Now without someone to egg me on I didn't have the slightest inclination to dive into that wall of death. "Chickened out?" the guys might say if I returned dry. I don't know if that's what made me do it—to prove it to them. It was almost as if the waves conspired against me, attenuating themselves to lull me in, seducing me with a deadly whisper. Then, when a window of opportunity briefly opened, without considering the consequences, I plunged right through it, headlong into the first wave that gave me a chance. Each successive wave tried its damndest to throw me back onto the beach, until finally I got through and there were no more breaking waves, just rolling mountains lifting me into the air and then dropping me into a blue canyon that seemed to go all the way to the ocean floor. Up again--then down again, the enormous waves swept under me with terrifying speed and crashed like one Niagara after another onto the now invisible beach. I had made a stupendous mistake ... Straddling my board, I looked over my shoulder to see what was coming; hoping there would another lull. It was not to be. The surf for some reason, at least on that beach, ran in roughly sixteen wave cycles, punctuated by a larger than normal set of waves. Far behind me I caught my first glimpse of number 16 and I reckoned that this behemoth was going to fall right on top of me with the force of a locomotive. I didn't even have enough time to turn my board around and face her head-on, which would have at least given me a chance. Having no choice but to try to ride it in, I hunkered down and paddled for my life. You have to get very close to the speed of a wave to catch it just as it crests. Too slow and it slips under you. Too fast and it crashes on your back and wipes you out. I timed it perfectly; a better surfer could have ridden that one, the way I caught it, all the way to the beach. The wave suddenly uncoiled beneath me like a giant spring and lifted me high into the air. At the crest I jumped to my feet. Had my reflexes been a little quicker I would have shifted my weight back slightly, tipped the nose up and slid down the steep face of the fast moving wave. Another level of skill would then have been required to keep from shooting down too fast and driving headlong into the coral. I was way out of my league on this one and in that critical fraction of a second the nose of the board dipped uncontrollably into the face of the wave and that was it, like an arrow piercing the clear blue water, my surfboard disappeared and I was catapualted headfirst into the wave’s gaping maw. Swirling uncontrollably in the muffled crackling bubbles of the breaking surf, I had no idea which way was up, down or sideways. Several times I broke the surface gasping for air but not quite long enough to catch a full breath before being pounded back down again. Then my surfboard shot up out of the water and turned a cartwheel on my face, splitting my eyebrow to the bone, (my war wound) and then like some maniacal fish it disappeared again. One time I was pushed so hard to the ocean floor that it felt like I was being pressed deep into it. Eventually I got to the point where I was too exhausted to fight and just let the surf have its way with me. The pitiless breakers threw me like a doll onto shore then dragged me back out again, back and forth, over and over. Finally I was able to claw my fingers into the wet sand, and hold some ground against the dragging backwash, and this way I slowly ratcheted myself out of the ocean’s deadly grasp and up onto dry sand. How long I lay there in the sand gasping like a landed fish I don’t know. It could have been ten minutes or an hour. Beaten by the sea I eventually stood up and trudged back to the compound, completely exhausted but grateful to be alive and with a renewed respect for the sea, and for life. I did after all have a wife and a child to think about. Had I not been thinking, or had I been trying to escape the thinking that was beginning to drive me nuts? All of us avoided the beach for a while, waiting for the sea to calm down some. No sense in tempting fate in a fated land. Then one fortuitous afternoon ET3 Jon Puis and I were down town picking up some parts at the main supply depot. I was maneuvering the "deuce and a half" through the maze of stacked crates surrounding the corrugated steel warehouse, when Jon spotted a large wooden box with some eye popping words stenciled on the side of it, "SEVEN MAN INFLATABLE LIFEBOAT." "Hey Ras, do you see what I see?" I slammed on the brakes. We dropped the tailgate and wrestled the heavy crate into the back then raced back to up Receivers like two banditos heading for the hills with the loot. We didn’t know if anyone saw us and we didn’t care either. Anchors aweigh my boys! We were sailors again. By the time I had returned with a pry bar, Puis had almost finished ripping the crate apart with his bare hands. We pulled out a enormous wad of black rubber with a short cord sticking out of it. A cloth tag on the end of the cord said, "PULL"--which I did, and with a hiss, the shapeless mass puffed up like a new bride on a Twinkie diet, and in few seconds, jackknifed itself open into a beautiful, plump, wrinkle free boat. It came with oars and an emergency kit--everything a shipwrecked crew needed. At last we could venture to the islands. But first we had to take her out for sea trials, which included a test of the craft's surfing abilities. The first wave we caught somersaulted us. Cox'n Yost, who had been sitting on the stern, got propelled ass-over-teakettle through the air headfirst into the steel inflation bottle attached at the bow, bounced off of that and over the side. We pulled him out of the water nearly unconscious and bleeding profusely from a large gash on his forehead. Then we patched him up with the first aid kit and bounced him down to the infirmary for repairs. A little Jack Daniels and the thrill of finally having a boat kept a smile on his face the whole time. I abandoned the ionosphere machine right after Hibbs left, and no one else wanted to take it on, so the useless contraption sat in the corner, from then on, deserted like an old unplugged refrigerator. That extravagant waste of taxpayers’ money was one of six in the world, being shuffled from one place to another, because no one else wanted the things either. The project had cut significantly into my beach activities, but not any longer. One day while exploring the Islands in the boat, I happened onto a small bed of pearl oysters. They had lain there, I imagined, hidden in virginal seclusion for eons and I was immediately overcome with a case of "pearl fever.” I began to fantasize about leaving Vietnam with a treasure trove. A sealed crate with all of my belongings would arrive at our front door in Toledo a few weeks after I got home. I would unscrew the back of the stereo speaker, pry a small metal box loose from the woofer magnet and open it in front of Christine's eager eyes. "Oh my God," she would say! "It is our reward," I would tell her. And she would show the box of pearls to our little baby, only three months old. "Look Sweetie, see what your Daddy brought home for us from the war." No one else wanted to participate in what was perceived as folly, which was fine---“more for me,” I said. They would never know what I found; they had their chance and they blew it. History is littered, I warned, with fools who are blind to opportunity. So I waited for a day when the sea was calm and the water clear as glass then I rowed out to the secluded oyster bed. By day’s end I had harvested every last one. Whether or not I found any pearls remained a precious secret with which I could not resist the temptation to tantalize my mates by hinting at a fortune stashed somewhere right under their noses. The ongoing fun I had with that one made it worth coming back empty handed. These were lazy days at Receivers and killing time had long since become an accepted, if not essential, way of life. I did still have some work to do however. It was 1970, and the Nixonian program of "Vietnamising" the war had begun. It was also called "De-escalation," but oddly enough, during this time, the number of ETs at Receivers rose from four, including Roger, at my arrival, to fourteen at my departure, a year later. About halfway through the year, all of us original ETs considered ourselves "emeritus" technicians and semi-retired to the sea, but for some reason I got stuck with instructing a group of naive young South Vietnamese naval officers on the operations of the Receiver Site. One day in the very near future, after the Americans (excuse me, the "Democracy Loving South Vietnamese People") had won the war, and established a just and lasting "Peace with Honor," they would be taking the place over and operating it themselves, and by all reports, doing a terrific job. "This is a cryptographic deciphering machine. Do you know what it does?" They all smiled, nodding in the affirmative. "Does your mother resemble a water buffalo?" Again they replied agreeably. "Do any of you speak a word of English?" Again, the same. I had mastered a mere handful of Vietnamese words (mostly useless curse words). It was hopeless. God help these poor boys... We couldn't. The writing on the wall may as well have been written in flashing red neon. It was no mystery to any of us what was going to happen eventually to South Vietnam when the Americans finally bailed out. When the truth was finally told, it was no big surprise that the higher-ups had felt the same way that we did, from the President and McNamara on down through the military brass, only they had all lied about it to the American people, cynically cashing in on skyrocketing military careers and fabulous defense contracts. While military leaders clambered up ladders made of other men, living and dead, an enormous military structure grew into a monstrosity. And, hand in hand with that, great greedy fortunes were made by war profiteers as the monster tore across the bloody corpse-littered landscape of the country we went there to save. They took a proud and decent nation from the hands of "The Greatest Generation" and shamed to the next--and the next. Nixon's election-winning slogan, "Peace with Honor" would instead be won by the Vietnamese in their own War of Independence. Looked like Westerners had been butting in over there long enough. No one wakes up one morning, stretches his arms and announces to the world, "What I would really like to be today is a communist." Who the hell would? Desperate people employ it as a means to an end, like the way an animal rolls in the mud to free itself of parasites... and there is a lot of blood-soaked mud along the roads between Dienbenphu and Saigon. Downtown, the "Vietnamising" process had begun in earnest. Keys to swift-boats were ceremoniously handed to unqualified Vietnamese sailors. The next day the black patrol boats were homes to families of displaced Vietnamese, along with a menagerie of pigs and chickens. We stepped up security at Receivers when we saw what was happening; the VC stepped up hostilities. Bob and Joe flew up to Danang to help dismantle a similar receiver site to keep it out of enemy hands--taking two days to demolish a fortune in communication gear with sledgehammers and hand grenades. What fun that was. "Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice." Like Nero’s, we fiddled at the beach. The Islands it turned-out, were barren chunks of granite; the largest and furthest out was as big as a city block, but it’s shore was protected by bluffs and boulders pounded continually by the sea, preventing us from ever getting close enough to attempt a landing. Beneath the surface however, life bloomed in breathtaking profusion. One of our favorite spots was a beautiful little lagoon protected from the surf by a circular barrier of stone and coral. We called it the Grotto. If we were stealthy enough to sneak in undetected, we could for a few brief moments, observe Neptune's kingdom in undisturbed splendor as a colorful assortment of fish in all sizes and shapes swam together in a silent slow motion ballet. In this one place only it seemed, all the sea creatures lived in peace and harmony. Usually however, in a matter seconds we were discovered, like sharks at the beach, and the party was quickly over as all the fishes darted for cover. Other areas of the kingdom weren't as peaceable however. I once witnessed a larger fish catch and swallow an unsuspecting smaller one. In the blink of an eye, and with an audible snap, the little fish simply disappeared. We too were formidable predators. Routinely armed with spear guns we were always on the lookout for sharks, although none of us ever saw one the entire year. We also never encountered the dreaded stone fish, the small, slow moving, spiny fish that lay hidden in the sand. A careless swimmer, after stepping on one we were told, could expect convulsions and an excruciating slow death. Despite all the negative publicity, we gave them very little thought. Moray eel’s snaked out of their rocky lairs and drove us away with their evil grins. Jellyfish stings were a common nuisance as were coral scrapes, which often took weeks to heal. Those things were the small price to pay for all the pleasure and bounty we gleaned from the sea. To compensate Neptune we worked to preserve the green sea turtle population. Our isolated beach was the nesting ground for vast numbers of the gentle amphibians. The meandering little tracks we saw on the beach in the mornings were a complete mystery until we discovered that baby turtles had hatched at night and then wandered aimlessly until the light of dawn drew them instinctively to the sea. On one particular night a remarkable beach invasion took place as perhaps hundreds of turtles crawled out of the surf to lay their eggs. Missy was confined during the nesting season as she felt it her duty as top bitch to attack any intruders. The enormous turtles were defenseless against the dogs' vicious attacks. Following powerful instincts they continued to lay their several dozen eggs undeterred. It was an age-old biological ritual that may quite possibly have brought turtles to that very beach long before Lucy walked through the Olduvai Gorge. We rescued large numbers of eggs from nests that had been disturbed by roaming dogs and wild boars and incubated them in sand-filled buckets until they hatched some forty days later. By keeping accurate logs, we learned to calculate to the day when a nest was due to hatch and then at dawn we released the tiny black babies into the surf. Receivers had become a veritable turtle nursery. The beach as well as the entire area surrounding the Receiver Site, and the entire peninsula, as far as I know, was designated a free-fire zone, so we were quite surprised and incredulous one day to see two Vietnamese civilian men gathering turtle eggs on the beach. Probing for them with a slender stick they dug them up by hand and placed them in a wicker basket. Another crewmember and I went down tell them that they had to leave, not only to protect the turtles, but also for their own safety. The local people had been harvesting eggs there for generations and these men grumbled something to that effect as they ambled off. Who were we to tell them that they were no longer allowed? We were the guys with the guns. That’s who. It was our beach... For now anyway. Were these guys daring hunter-gatherers, ill-informed locals or what exactly? In retrospect I believe they were Viet Cong and we caught them setting booby traps right under our noses? Some time later, I was walking along the beach and stepped on a hand grenade that had been buried just the sand. The pin had been pulled and the lever held in place with a piece of ordinary Scotch tape. Under the intense sunlight and heat of the sand, the tape had melted and loosened its grip, leaving only the sand to hold the lever in place until an incautious foot stepped on it. Klinck...One, Two, Three, Four, KABOOM! That’s as close as I came to not making it back alive from Vietnam... A simple but ingenious booby trap cunningly set on our own private beach, just lying there waiting to blow some unlucky sailor to bits. Like my stepmother always said...I was lucky. So now I owed my life to the holding power of a little piece of Scotch tape. I carefully uncovered the grenade, dusting off the sand as I held the lever in place then went back up to the site and acquired a new pin from the gunners mate. Neither of us reported it, not wanting to jeopardize our access to our main source of recreation. That’s how important the beach was to us. On that day I dodged a bullet, the one I saw coming four years earlier and thought very little of it. Thirty years later it wakes me up at night. Chapter Twenty Seven It was now February. In Oregon, Christine was approaching her due date. After much pleading she sent me some pictures of her "new look." I was missing it all; the big belly, the kicking, my girl growing into a woman—everything. In Vietnam, Intelligence reports warned of ever increasing activity of the Viet Cong. Rocket attacks on the army base became more frequent. We began to fortify the site with sturdier bunkers and machine gun pods at every corner of the compound. Drills and alerts were taken more seriously and we had stopped sleeping on watch. Fearing hoards of VC sweeping down from the hills, and mortars raining down on our roofs, we patrolled deeper into the jungle in search of any sign of "Mister Charles." Life mimicked art when the two enginemen from Idaho built a "Rat Patrol" jeep with an M-60 machine-gun mounted on a tripod where the back seat had been removed. Taking turns behind the wheel and then the M-60, the two warriors raced their chariot up and down the length of the beach on "Slope Patrol," stopping now and then to take snapshots of each other, inspiring the rest of us to dream up captions for the photos sent home. "Me and Tweedlededum, makin' the world safe for democracy." That was the only time they went to the beach, to tear it up. The beach was for sissies. The muscular one of the two was the gate guard the night I almost shot Hibbs. He was tagged with the comically patriotic name Victory Day. Vic was angry and tough, scoffing at everything "candy-assed" like Rock and Roll, preferring Tammy Wynett instead--and Johnny Cash. He had his wife send cartons of cigarettes from Idaho, which he guarded like one of the dogs with a new bone. He claimed the rationed, untaxed ones were somehow inferior--salt peter again. What the hell did he care about that where we were? They came in the same package. "Same damned stamp, see Victory." Same ones that killed the Marlboro man. When he offered you one, which was rarely, there did seem to be a difference, though maybe it was just the way Victory looked at you when you took a long skeptical drag off one of his stateside cigarettes. One night after a General Quarters drill the CO announced that, armed with only a flashlight and his Colt 45, he was going to go scouting in the jungle for VC mortar emplacements. It was a ridiculous and fool-hardy plan and suicidal on top of that if in fact there were any Viet Cong operating in the vicinity. None of us truly believed that there were any VC in the jungle, but that night some of us openly wished that there were. We were convinced that our CO was silly, delusional and even perhaps a hazard to our security. Nonetheless, when he asked for a volunteer to rendezvous with him at a designated place and at a precise time by synchronizing wristwatches, it was Victory who volunteered for the “dangerous” mission. He took a lot of ribbing for that “act of heroism.” By this time we had lost all respect for our Commanding Officer. Chief Harry Ass Truman didn’t say a word, didn’t wink or betray a thought, but we knew what he was thinking. He may have been our leader, but he was also one of us without ever saying so. Vic's pal, "Hefty" Davenport, said that if we ever got hit during the daytime while the "Gooks" were still there, and they were hiding in their hooch, he was going to kill every one of them, because that would have been proof enough to him that they would have known of the attack in advance. It doesn't take long in a war, even on the fringes, for things to get ugly. But thanks to Victory and Hefty, we had a surfeit of vehicles at Receivers. They had a talent for "rescuing" unattended vehicles, which meant any vehicle that broke down or ran out of gas on our stretch of the ass-pounder. Like a spider on a fly, they scurried through the gate in a jerry-rigged tow truck, latched onto their prey and dragged it down a back road into the jungle. There they burned off the paint (usually army green) with gasoline, then a couple days later drove through the front gate with a jeep they had, "picked up at army salvage." Looking like it had been driven through Hades, all it really needed was a coat of navy haze gray paint and some fake numbers painted on the hood. The official "owners," forgetting the American taxpayer, simply requisitioned another one. Toward the middle of February an upsetting letter from Christine got me really worried. She had a bad case of the flue. I perused some medical texts that the Chief had loaned me and then I went down to the infirmary to ask some questions. They told me that it could be dangerous at this stage of pregnancy, but not to worry. That wouldn't help. Frantic, I visited the base Chaplain to ask if he could arrange emergency leave for me and, hoping beyond hope, that perhaps the powers that be could be persuaded, given the minor necessity of my being there at all at this point, to give me a much coveted, "Early Out." This chaplain was the very same man of the cloth who sprinkled Holy water on the poker decks at the nightly base chapel fund-raisers. He sat behind his desk, with a toothpick working at the remains of breakfast. "I can try to get you a few days." Earlier in the year, one of the guys at Receivers got an early out because his wife was having a nervous breakdown about his being in Vietnam. I figured I was needed at home at least as much as he was. That guy's father was a state senator, which probably helped; it was unusual that a senator's son ended up in Nam in the first place, especially as an enlisted puke. The chaplain came up with this offer. "We can give you two days in the States, but you realize of course that you have to come right back, and if you don't, you'll be charged with desertion and a federal marshal will come after you." If anything serious happened, like if Christine died in childbirth I could get two weeks to arrange the funeral and so forth. If the baby lived and there was no one to care for it, then that might constitute a hardship for which I could get an early out. "Sailor, we've got a war to fight, you can't just leave at your own convenience. Now try not to worry so much and keep your fingers crossed." An appeal to the higher power, I hoped, would garner better results, but the Lord was not answering prayers of that nature in Vietnam. "I help those who help themselves," was his answer to my prayer. So I helped myself. Desperate to talk to Christine, I arranged a communication relay, which linked Receivers through a number of other stations, including a ship at sea and a "Ham" operator in Alaska, and finally through divine intervention, a hook-up with a "Northwest Bell" telephone operator. Christine was awakened, feverish and groggy. We hadn't spoken in nine months. "Would you accept a collect call from a Mr. Rasputin in Nome, Alaska?" inquired the Bell operator. "Huh?" "Tell her to say 'over'," crackled the ham operator. She had to say "over" when she finished speaking, as did I, but I was used to it. She was confused. "What?" "Say over, say over," insisted the ham operator. "Over? Who’s calling?" "Say over, say over." "Okay. Over. "It’s a Mr. Rasputin in Alaska," relayed the Bell operator. "I don't know a Mr. Rasputin. What does he want?" "Say over." "Over!" "He says he's your husband. Will you take the call?" "What? Uh, yes." "Say over, say over." "Over, over!" "Hi it’s me, honey, I'm sorry this is so confusing. Are you okay, over?" "Charles, you’re on your way home!" "Say over, say over." "Over." "I'm calling from 'Nam. Over" "But they said you were in Alaska. Charles what's going on? Are you coming home?" "Say over, say over." It was maddening, utterly frustrating and excruciatingly public. In the end we decided it would be too painful if I returned for just two days, only to have to turn around and leave again. "And I'm feeling better now anyway," she said. "Over" "Don't worry. Everything will be fine," she said "I miss you." The ham operator interrupted. "Say out when you’re finished." "Out?" she asked. Click--static--hiss—then there was nothing... Her mother had told her it wasn't good to worry someone in a war. I had three long months to go and then it would be "over," forever. At “Out” I completely lost my composure and threw the handset across the room. I then attempted to drown my frustration with a bottle of whiskey. It didn’t help. Throughout the following days I was a total wreck, living on coffee, cigarettes and booze. The radio operators diligently looked for the message that I longed for. In the army refrigerator several bottles of the best champagne the PX had to offer stood in a row, waiting for word. Receivers had become a waiting room with me lurching like a crazy man at every opening door. For two long weeks I paced the floor, waiting, waiting, waiting. The maddening frustration holding me in its feverish grip had begun to infect my shipmates as well and finally one night after several hours of boozing it came to a head. We ETs went on a drunken rampage, trashing our room, tipping over lockers and bunks and generally making a big mess of our cramped but normally tidy room. Chief Harry Ass Truman, awakened by all the commotion, came down to see what was going on. Shaking his head in disgust, the chief turned around and went back to his quarters without saying a word. He didn’t have to. Drunk as we were, we still had enough sense to realize that pushing that man could have life-altering consequences and so we quickly set to work tidying things up. Then on February 28, 1970, the message finally arrived. "A BABY GIRL WAS BORN!" Back in the “World,” Mom and little Caroline were doing just fine. At the Receiver Site Champagne corks ricocheted off pin-ups and steel lockers, shouts and cheers flooded the passageways, and I joyfully handed out cigars to my congratulatory shipmates. Afterward I went down to the beach to be alone with my thoughts, and there strolling barefoot in an effervescent cocktail of sweet bliss and bitter sadness I gazed out upon the South China Sea and ached for my family. Now, more than ever, I wanted to go home. Chapter Twenty Eight Upwards of two million Vietnamese were killed during America’s involvement in Vietnam, with over one hundred thousand listed as missing in action. Almost sixty thousand American men perished in the war; over a thousand have never been accounted for. No one, as far as I know, has ever done a body count of the wild animals killed, but it must have been a staggering number. Saturation bombing, napalm and other incendiaries like phosphorous bombs and Claymore mines, and Agent Orange were indiscriminate killers, not to mention the countless rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers in the hands of former country boys like myself, skilled at hunting animals. The impulse to kill an animal seems violent and primitive, but I've often wondered if its roots aren't more benign, if it isn't somehow related to a simple desire to be close to an animal, or a perverse desire to gain control of it. When I was a little boy, I watched my father shoot a hawk out of the sky. It was circling impossibly far away, high above a tree line. He lead it by several feet and at the same time intuitively calculated the drop of the bullet by aiming well above the point where he knew the bird and projectile would meet. A puff of feathers indicated a spectacular direct hit which stopped the unsuspecting hawk in mid-flight, and dropped it like a shredded parachute down into the outstretched arms of the Douglas firs standing below. I wanted to go see it up close, but my dad wouldn't let me; it was too far he said--I would never find it. I remember thinking how cruel and pointless it was, not cruel and pointless to kill it, but to have killed it and not seen it up close and not touched it--not felt something for it. When I was about eleven years old I shot a robin right through the heart with a "Daisy" pump-action BB gun. I spotted it at the top of the apple tree in our front yard, its big red breast thrust out, head up, chirping away. It was the perfect target and an easy one for a kid who had been taught to aim and shoot carefully. ”Squeeze the trigger slowly, Charlie.” I watched it tumble down through the branches into the grass then I ran over and picked it up. Its little head dangled limply over my trigger finger, a thin trickle of warm blood dampening my hand. "Don't die, please don't die," I cried. It was already dead of course. A minute copper plated bullet had ripped its life out. I caressed the bird’s delicate, bony feet and spread its collapsed wings. I lifted its tiny eyelids and examined the thin bloodied tongue. I flopped its head back and forth for any sign of life. In a boy’s simple twisted logic, to see a wild creature up close, intimately, to touch it, was to destroy it. Later, I cradled the lifeless stiffened body, red breast up, in a shoe box cushioned with grass and decorated with flowers. Then I laid the unknown robin to rest in the rose garden near the unfortunate box turtle, and the short-lived parakeet, and the beloved Cocker Spaniel named Shadow. Finally I said some guilty prayers that I hoped would carry my little victim up to heaven. I was sad about it for a few days, but after that it got easier to shoot other birds and I became a very good shot with my pump action "Daisy" and as I grew up I went looking for ever-larger and more elusive game. I became a hunter. At age thirteen I went to spend the summer (that summer) with my father and his new wife. One of the reasons I gave my mother was that I wanted to go "coon hunting" with my dad. I'll never forget that look of disappointment on her face as she realized that her little boy had grown hair on his balls and was heading into the woods with his Cretin father to be instructed in the ancient art of killing "big game"--namely "Bambi." We were too young at first to carry high-powered rifles, so our Dad used my brother and me to "dog" the bushes, rousing deer for him to shoot at. He never missed them; the man was a phenomenal shot. Donna Lee was in on it too, mostly I think because she and my dad were crazy about each other and inseparable. She sat on a stump by herself with a pack of cigarettes, a thermos of coffee, and a lever-action 30-30 Marlin and waited for a deer to walk by. She would shoot one (more often at one) but she refused to touch it until it was ready for the skillet. My Dad on the other hand seemed to relish slitting the animal open from anus to sternum and reaching into the steaming cavity up to his elbows to pull out the various organs, identifying each one with a big grin. I was shocked and repulsed at how shiny the blood was as it glistened like red varnish on my dad's big hairy arm. "Here's the heart, Love!" "Cigarette Love?" she asked, holding a fresh-lit one to his lips for a refreshing pull. He was unaware that the cigarette was killing him as surely as he had killed that deer. At sixteen, the first deer I shot was a doe and it didn't die easily enough for either of us. It was "gut-shot," which meant that I had to cut its throat with a knife as it stared at me with big brown beautiful eyes. I shuddered and cursed, but I got over that too, for a while anyway. A lot of the guys at Receivers grew up like me, skilled with guns long before the firing range. A new guy--a Texan named Bill Moore (we called him "Westy" after that general) shot an ocelot on the night of his first patrol into the jungle. It was no larger than a house cat, which prompted the rest of us to rib and shame him for murdering poor little "Miss Kitty." Unrepentant, he skinned the pretty jungle-cat and hung the gorgeous speckled pelt on the wall above his bunk, creating a pathetic sort of trophy room for himself, which drew even more ridicule from the rest of us. But our mockery seemed only to encourage the man’s blood lust. Then one day he announced that he was going to shoot himself a tiger. If anyone on tower watch ever saw a one, he and the two Idaho boys wanted to be awakened, no matter what the hour. Not having been at Receivers more than a few weeks, he was still unaware that certain fun-loving crewmembers would pounce on any opportunity to amuse themselves at another's expense. I didn't know this fellow very well yet, so, wary of being discovered, I painstakingly covered my tracks when I set out to lay a trap. On the day of my next tower watch I located some red reflective adhesive tape (At the buffet of McNamara’s Restaurant). When no one was watching, I sneaked out to the jungle and stuck two round pieces to some branches at about the height I calculated a large tiger might stand. I spaced them at around ten inches or so apart, carefully angling them up toward the search-light so as to reflect brightly that night toward the back gate. This was the one and only time I ever looked forward to spending the night in the tower. In the wee hours of the following morning, at what I judged would be the most unpleasant hour to be awakened from a sound sleep, I radioed the roving watch and whispered into my walkie-talkie. "Better wake up Westy. I think there's a tiger out here." Within minutes, three silent figures armed with M-16s slipped through the back gate and crept toward the jungle, following the beam of light shining down from the tower into a clump of bushes. Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry? I whispered into the walkie-talkie. "Do you see it, over?" Through the static hiss Westy replied, "Roger, but we need to get a little closer, over." The hunters themselves crouched like stalking cats. Cautiously they advanced toward the blazing, fearsome “eyeballs.” The warm night air was so thick with tension that even I could imagine a tiger's presence, an illusion I conveyed as convincingly as possible to the hunters below, so that if the prank were discovered they would certainly think I was duped as well. In their rifle sites burned the eyes of the most ferocious predator on the planet. Bagging this fabled killer would elevate them for all time into the exclusive pantheon of great white hunters. Before the first trigger was pulled, indeed long before this night, each man had envisioned himself in a silver framed photograph sitting prominently on a fireplace mantel in a walnut paneled room. In the picture he sees himself leaning on a rifle next to a dead tiger--proof that the great striped skin lying on the floor was won in some dark Asian jungle, an eternal testament to his courage and manhood. The first round blew the night to smithereens; its echoes crackled back and forth between the distant hills. A few seconds later another shot was fired, then another, and another, "Boom! Boom! Boom!" Still the eyes were there, but now they were more terrible and unafraid than before. Another volley was fired and still the eyes remained. In fact now they appeared to be closer. Panic set in as rifles were put to full automatic, and a total of six hundred rounds a minute totally obliterated that bush. Then the eyes were gone. But where was the tiger? When they looked, there was no blood, no tracks. There was nothing. I shined the light further down the tree line to steer them away from the evidence while I shouted shamelessly into the walkie-talkie, "What's that?" Another fusillade ripped through the foliage. Everywhere I pointed the light, more bullets flew. Gun barrels heated to the danger point (they could warp and blow up in your face). Then I started shooting too, repeatedly re-aiming the light and firing straight down the beam. Wherever I shot, they shot too. It was pandemonium--a rootin' tootin' shootin' war at long last. "Yahoo! Shootem' up you fucking assholes!" "Kill, Kill, Kill!" Down the road, at the Army checkpoint, they must have thought we were being over-run by the V C--if they could hear--if they were even conscious. Then the dogs were sent in to rout the beast, Missy, as always, leading the charge. Perhaps the dogs only smelled the adrenalized fear of the men, but they were all worked up too, and their agitation whipped the hunters into further frenzy. Hefty Davenport shagged his butt back for the "Slope Patrol" jeep, and minutes later the three crazed hunters went roaring deep into the bush. They spent the remaining hours of the night barreling through the jungle, in and out of earshot, shooting the holy hell out of it. I was out of my mind up in the tower, laughing my ass off again. Everything was still all just a big fucking joke. After a while only sporadic bursts of the M-60 machinegun could be heard. They were fired at shadows and demons; nothing else dared show itself. That tiger was long gone. As day broke, the hunt slowly wound down with the exhausted men and dogs still sniffing around for tracks and blood--for any sign of the elusive tiger. Then shortly after dawn the tired empty-handed hunters drove back into the compound--at the same time I was descending the tower at the conclusion of my watch. Tiger had licked the hunters good, but that, of course, was only proof of the great cat’s indomitability. The entire enterprise was rehashed over morning coffee, as much for the benefit of the other crewmembers listening as to sort out the events of the night for the hunters themselves. "Christ O Mighty, Did you see the size of that cat?" "Tiger grease my ass,” scoffed Hefty Davenport, “sure didn't stop ol' Missy. (patting the wagging Missy on the head). The CO don't know shit." "Goddamn that tiger was smart!" "Good thing Ras was on the ball." It was big news up and down the peninsula—“The Great Tiger Hunt at the Receiver Site" in the spring of 1970. "There’s always some kind of crazy shit going down up there at 'Receivers'." Chapter Twenty Nine Killing animals is a long way from killing people, and though there are some obvious parallels, the two are probably as unrelated as a cup of tea and a vial of heroin. It was learned through extensive study after World War II that human beings, oddly enough, have a natural aversion to killing other human beings; it has to be taught. Evidence gleaned from battlefields throughout history has confirmed this. Unfired rifles were recovered at Gettysburg in numerous situations where it was obvious that the soldier had simply been unable to pull the trigger at the sight of his fellow man. On the Pacific islands in WW II it was the individual soldier, alone with his conscience who often couldn't overcome the instinctive revulsion against killing one of his own kind. Soldiers manning weapons like machines guns and flame-throwers shot at a higher rate, possibly because their higher visibility subjected them to a form of peer pressure that drove them against primal taboos. US Military psychologists used this information to enhance basic training techniques after World War Two. This was why at camp Pendleton, in order to chip away at our inhibitions, we were ordered to, "YELL KILL!" by the drill instructors as we shot at the steel cut-out "gook" figures that popped up in the mock village. That didn’t sit well with many of us sailors who were too old and cynical by then for such nonsense; the boot camp mentality was a very long way behind us at that point. All of us outranked the marine DIs and invited them with impunity to go fuck themselves--which shocked and amazed the grunts crawling alongside of us. The psychologists figured it right. Vietnam had the highest individual firing rate in history. And fire they did-at anything that moved. Killing is a lot like sex; once you start, they say, it’s hard to stop. In an interview on a PBS "Frontline" documentary about the My Lai massacre, one of those former soldiers, a young corporal at the time, described how it started that day for him. A year or two out of high school, they were a typical bunch of American GIs. One morning at dawn they were mustered in a clearing outside a village in South Vietnam. It was March 16 1968. "Charlie Company" of the Americal Division, 11th Brigade, was on a "search and destroy" mission in the little hamlet known as My Lai 4. It was called "Pinkville" because the villagers were thought to be communist sympathizers. Charlie Company had been operating in the area for some time trying to rout a group of elusive Viet Cong infiltrators. They had taken some casualties and the troops were scared, frustrated and angry. They were angry about a lot of things, but several of their buddies had been killed in the preceding days and they were out for revenge. After a briefing, in which they were told that anyone left in the village would be considered Viet Cong, they went in shooting mad. [At the trial Captain Medina denied ordering the slaughter and blamed it on his subordinate Lt. William Calley.] The young corporal said he saw a figure in black pajamas running toward the tree line carrying what he thought was a weapon. It was an easy target. He fired and hit the Viet Cong square in the back. When he turned the body over, he saw that it was a woman carrying a baby. The M-16 bullet had blown a gaping hole right through both of them. The shock at seeing what he had done ripped through the man's psyche with a devastation nearly equal to that of the bullet. As the shocked man struggled to reconcile the impossible with the unspeakable he said he completely lost his sense of humanity. Thus stripped bare of civilization’s thin moral veneer, a young conscript soldier spent the remainder of that atrocious morning, along with the other madmen, killing five hundred four women, children, and old men. It took them just under four hours, probably breaking, or at least coming close to, a record set by some equally well trained German boys three decades earlier. Virgins were sodomized and their vaginas probed with bayonets (for concealed razor blades presumably). A rifle was shoved into a girl’s vagina and fired. Mothers were gang raped while their children were butchered in front of them, and their babies impaled on bamboo stakes for target practice. Old men were thrown down wells with live grenades and at least one little boy was castrated. The carnage was finally stopped when a Chopper pilot named Hugh Clowers Thompson from Stone Mountain Georgia saw what was happening and angrily set his Huey gunship down between the American soldiers and a group of fleeing Vietnamese and ordered Larry Coburn his door gunner to open fire on the Americans if they didn’t stop what they were doing. That was all it took to bring Charlie Company to its senses—looking down the business end of a machine gun in the hands of a guy willing to shoot. It took the US Army, after nearly thirty years of vilifying Thompson, to come to its senses and grudgingly recognize his true heroism by awarding him the Soldier's Medal. Only one man was held accountable for one of the most horrific (and well documented) war crimes in history. That buck was passed down to a poorly trained Lieutenant who eventually was sentenced to life at hard labor. After the public outcry at his being scape-goated by the higher-ups, he ultimately served only a few months under house arrest. My Lai is remembered as one of many unfortunate "accidents" of a complex and foggy war that happened occasionally in the heat of battle--no one’s fault really. Best forget the whole thing and move on. Hey, Shit happens. There being no statute of limitations on war crimes, Octogenarian German war criminals are still hunted down and called to task. It is seen as a healing process for humankind. The difference here perhaps being not so much the type of crime committed as the kind of blood drained into the ditch-and the ones who did the killing. Decades later that young corporal was a ruined middle-aged man sitting in front of a TV camera behind a coffee table littered with prescription drugs, which he took to numb the pain of a shattered soul. He lives, if you can call it that, in a private hell. I wonder if the ones who sent him there even remember his name. On March 16, 1998 Hugh Thompson and his door gunner Larry Colburn returned to the Village of My Lai for the thirtieth anniversary of the massacre. Mike Wallace and the “60 Minutes” news crew accompanied them. Thompson and Colburn were given letters of thanks and gifts of appreciation for doing, as Thompson said, “the correct thing.” No other American representation was present. At the ceremony a lady asked, “Why didn’t any of the ones who participated (in the massacre) come?” Her reason? “So we could forgive them.” None of us at Receivers ever faced the impossible moral anguish that so many others were forced to confront in the field on a daily basis. I can't fathom having to kill another person, nor can I imagine what it does to the mind and the soul to have to struggle on a daily basis with the immense psychological dilemma of having to follow orders that you know in your heart to be wrong. The pliable young mind of an angry, frieghtened soldier just trying to stay alive through his seemingly interminable year in hell, bends to an evil will and then snaps. That tragically disillusioned boy goes home a broken man. I am exceedingly grateful for escaping that, and I too am tempted to say that I couldn't or wouldn’t have done it. But I will never know—I didn’t have to; I got lucky. Chapter Thirty Ten months in country and the newness had faded from everything except the fresh faces of the new arrivals. Sure seemed odd given the U.S. military's "Vietnamizing" efforts. Troop withdrawal played hopeful in the press, but us boys at Receivers saw it as just another pack of lies. We didn't believe anything anymore and now we were starting to chafe on each other's nerves. I ached far beyond longing and homesickness to go home to my wife and child. The memories and photographs that had sustained me were at the same time a constant reminder of their unchanging form. I had only a dim memory left of my old life on the outside and of love too—that’s all. Writing home became increasingly difficult as the feelings that I suppressed to keep up my day-to-day spirits stopped up my heart like the ink of a clogged pen. Often my letters abruptly ended as crumpled wads bitterly thrown against my cubicle wall. Letters from Christine too had become fewer and fewer for one reason or another. I began to fear that things were falling apart at home. We were losing touch. I had to do something to get the hell out of Vietnam. The time was right to make another stab at an early out. Rumor had it--and that's all it was, nothing official, that if you got accepted at a school in the States they might let you out early. So I sent away to an Art school in Portland Oregon for an admissions package. A few weeks later I was finishing up the requisite questionnaires, drawings, and essays. I had to draw a tree: Gunner's banana tree had sprouted several new leaves, an animal—Missy obliged, reclining in the nude, Bob sat patiently for a portrait, and a drawing of a body of water--that was easy, I could draw the beach blind-folded. And they wanted to know, "in your own words," why I wanted to be an artist. Well I must have told them precisely what they wanted to hear, because soon thereafter I received an enthusiastic letter of acceptance for spring term, which I gleefully stapled to my request chit for an early out and handed it to Chief Harry Ass Truman to run up through the chain of command. I was practically on my way. The Chief was very optimistic. "I'll put in a good word for ya, Ras." In the following days that it took for the “Brass” to reach their decision about my request, I started to work like a real artist. I drew a series of erotic nudes, signed them "Pablo Picasso," stuffed them into whiskey bottles and tossed them into the surf. I constructed a small Calderescue mobile and hung it unmilitary-like from the ceiling of my cubical. When the Chief came in with the news, I was busily sorting through a year’s worth of accumulated belongings, setting aside things to crate up and ship home, passing on my accumulated G.I. tools and personal extensive shell collection, that sort of thing. "Ras I’m sorry, they said you were still needed here. There is nothing I can do" That was it. Just another shining lie. Utter horse shit it was, and he knew it, and they knew it, and they all knew that I knew it. So that was that. The bastards were going to ring every last stinking minute out of me. The United States of American could not extricate itself from Vietnam and neither could I. On the morning that I had exactly one hundred days of my enlistment remaining I had made the traditional short-timers calendar, a bead-chain of one hundred beads each to be removed one day at a time. Four years earlier I had measured time by an imaginary ever-accelerating clock; now each day I clipped off my calendar seemed maddeningly longer than the one preceding it and there was growing concern with each slowly passing day that the NVA was going to literally show up at our doorstep. Rocket attacks became more and more frequent; sappers brazenly and repeatedly attempted to hit us from the beach. We were getting edgy and nervous, especially us short-timers. We started valuing our lives, which would soon be granted back to us, as precious again. The things that mattered most only a few months earlier: the beach, the boat, surfing, barbeques, the very things that had kept us going, gave some shape and meaning to our lives and relief from boredom were now themselves boring. The Chief had reluctantly shut the doors for good on Bunker 8 one night after guns were drawn in a dispute over an outsized hand of poker. It was hard to find pleasure in anything anymore. I just wanted to get the hell out of there before it was too late. Bob and Joe’s tour finally came to an end and they packed up and left for home on their 365th day. I took a photograph of the two standing next to the Jeep that would carry them one last time up the ass-pounder to the airbase. They had arrived at Receivers together one year earlier and now they left together. Every once in a while I come across that old photograph and I'm always struck by the expansiveness of the grins on those boy's faces. They were so happy to be going home and I was happy for them, but at the same time I was sad that for the next month or so I would be without my buddies. I never saw either one of them again. Among the last of the old-timers, I was now surrounded by worried new faces. In 'Nam, thinking then that we couldn’t bare to be without each other for long, we all said, "Lets write--stay in touch, maybe meet in California and go surfing." We promised to not forget each other. But we did--and yet we never will. I lost touch because I wanted to forget that I had played any part in that dirty rotten war--wanted to forget the whole lousy year—the whole four really. The final lingering weeks were tedious ones. I could only wait, and wait, and wait. I did absolutely nothing; made a point of it. All of the new ETs were eager to be useful and immediately got busy with what little work there was distributed among so many and I was happy to let them have it. As far as I was concerned my act was over. I was Kaput. I began to wonder about the future, about how different life would be as a civilian. The misplaced life for which I had long yearned was now within sight. What would life be like on the outside? I guessed it was going to take some getting used to. Was I fit for it after all these transformative years? Could I really go home again? I was now the father of a little girl I'd seen only in pictures. I was the new husband who had gone to war, to reluctantly serve a dubious cause and I’d left my pregnant child-bride to fend for herself. I would never forgive myself for that, and neither, I eventually found out, would she. Four years earlier, out of fear and desperation, I had made a deal--four years of my life for my life. You could say that I had an easy time of it, and you'd be right. I spent a luxurious year on beautiful stretch of tropical beach. Hell it was practically a vacation. I still had all of my limbs, and my faculties. I came through unscathed. I didn't get killed as did the sixty thousand other GIs, and I didn't have to kill any of the three million or so Vietnamese, at least not with my own hands. I am only slightly more culpable in that regard than the average American citizen, who ultimately bears the blame for electing the real culprits from Kennedy and MacNamara to those bonafide crooks and war criminals Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, and also the senators who voted to start the war in the first place. My experience in Vietnam, I suppose, is nothing to be ashamed of, but certainly nothing to be proud of either. I served my misguided country. I participated in the evil enterprise. But, meaningless sacrifice is not a virtue. In today’s jargon, in the larger view, I might have been one of the “bad guys.” [Now on the eve of a new war the leaders once again gather to ponder and debate the merits and wisdom of a resolution that will pit our nation against another. This time it’s Iraq. On the floor of the senate today Robert Byrd compared the president’s resolution on Iraq to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. “I am ashamed,” he said, “for voting YES on that resolution. And he is not alone. But he said that the boys who didn’t say NO should still be proud. The lie it seems is necessary still. How else could you get the young men and women of today to lay down their lives in defense of the interests of the oil rich other than to appeal to their patriotism and their pride? ] For four years I traveled a long and winding road and like the other millions of young men who had exerted no great effort either for or against the war, I became, in the end, a willing participant in a costly and futile national misadventure. As one little cog in the countless gears of military madness I meshed with others to help move a steadily turning wheel in the great lumbering machine that drives all wars. And somewhere along the way, just like my father, I left something dear behind, but I can't even remember what that was anymore--only that it was an important part of my life. As those years went by, my boot camp shoes wore out and so I replaced them with new ones, and when those wore out I replaced them too. And all those hats, and shirts, and ties and trousers--they were replaced many times. My hair was cut at least a hundred times. Even my old skin was gone--many times over. And my blood--not a drop was left that I started with. My heart had beaten roughly a 150 million times. At the end of my enlistment I was not the same person I was at the beginning. I don't know why I thought I would be. And I don't know why I thought Christine would be either--but I did. We changed without knowing. Without each other and only the fantasy-sustaining letters to bind us together through the day-to-day strain of the worry and the fear and the absence, we lost something. During that final year in Vietnam we grew apart as we grew up. Time. Time. Time goes by so slowly. And time can do so much. The final days passed like the slow weighing of a ship’s anchor up from the lower deep, one chain-link at a time, cranked up through a rusting windlass by the weary work of a worn out sailor. Clink............ clink............. clink.............. It was June 10 1970 and finally I was down to a few remaining hours as I waited around the site for an afternoon flight. It was almost anticlimactic when the end did come--the end of “Receivers.” Ski and Jon Puis drove me to the airbase riding in the shotgun seat of a stolen Ford-built jeep. When we passed through the gate that day and headed up the ass-pounder for the last time, several of the new men were basking on that beautiful but wretched time-killing beach. I didn’t even glance back at the poor fuckers. The airbase was the exactly as it had been the year before. But, this time I was on the way out in rumpled marine jungle fatigues and struggling hard to conceal a twitching smile of joy from the anxious arrivals. Blending into the throngs I jockeyed for my place on the departing flight back to the “World.” On the plane every man settled into his seat, excited and tense but quiet. We buckled our seatbelts and gazed wondrously at the pretty stewardesses. They were the first civilian American women we'd seen in a year--blessed angels they were, come to escort us ragged devils up into the heavens. Hoping my previous prayer hadn’t been put on back-order, I prayed again, “Don't let anything happen to us, not now. Please?” Ditching in the South China Sea held no appeal for me this time. All I wanted to do was get the hell out of that place. No one made a sound as we taxied over those same interlocking steel plates. It could still happen. Anything could happen on the launching pad back to the “World”--a lucky rocket or a determined sapper. No one breathed nor even blinked as our plane raced down the runway toward takeoff, picking up speed, faster, and faster, and faster.... Then came that moment, the one we had all dreamed of, that moment that did not come for so many others. Our plane at last nosed-up and cleared the end of the runway at Cam Ranh Airbase and then soared high up into the clouds billowing above the South China Sea. Finally it made a hard turn and banked to the Northeast--towards home. Men cheered and grabbed at each other, they slapped the backs of strangers seated in front of them and bellowed out their last breath of Vietnam. The stewardesses cried and so did some of the men. We were going HOME, and we were ALIVE! For us Vietnam was over. Chapter Thirty One On a sunny June day in 1970, at the end of a long trip that had begun on a quiet beach on the farthest corner of the globe, I walked into the Seattle-Tacoma airport still dressed in marine jungle fatigues and combat boots, sea-bag slung over my shoulder. My skin was brown, my hair bleached nearly white from a year in the sun. My mind was in a wonder. The terminal was colorful and serene. A woman's soothing voice wafted through cool air, sweetened with the forgotten aromas of popcorn, pastry, and perfume. I took a deep delicious breath and looked around for a phone booth, found one and called Christine. “I’m home,” I said. “I’m finally home.” From out of nowhere a gaunt young man with a Christ-like beard and scruffy clothing ran up and screamed into my face, "MURDERER! BABY KILLER!" He wore the symbol of the “Make Love-not War” generation--a peace sign, but I had never felt so much hatred from anyone in all my life. Obviously he was deranged. “Who was that,” Christine asked? “I don’t know, just some asshole.” I later realized it was the standard welcome home. The Vietnam War cliché. I got off the phone and ducked into the men's room and pulled my wrinkled dress whites from the bottom of my hurriedly packed sea bag. They hadn’t been worn in a year and looked it, but they were less conspicuous than jungle greens. I was processed out of the Navy in Seattle at Pier 91 in a World War II era shipyard building. There were only a handful of us going through the dream-like ritual at a slow, almost leisurely pace. Mostly we just waited around for clerical workers to finish forms and tidy up our files. They treated us well, as if we had been found wandering in the desert. We were given cursory physical examinations. Christine and Caroline waited in Toledo. The next morning, the officer in charge asked three of us Petty Officers if we would mind representing the Navy at a retired Warrant Officer's funeral set to take place early that afternoon. No obligation to us of course. His wife had requested it: the last benefit of a lifer’s service. Why the hell not? We didn't care one way or another; we were just wasting some final hours as the sluggish bureaucracy moved us through the system. We would be happy to bury some old fart on our way out; seemed a fitting end to this whole farce. We stopped at a “MacDonald’s” before driving on to the cemetery. The license plates on our haze gray sedan said, "OFFICIAL." The United States Navy had arrived at last. It was a small service and not a particularly sad one. No one need listen any longer to the senile old man retelling the same tired old sea stories. Two girls failed to suppress teenage giggles at the sight of three solemn-looking sailors draping an American flag over the casket. Following the eulogy, a magnificent but boyish looking marine in dress uniform, with a head shaped like a three-pound coffee tin, played a flawlessly mournful taps on a bugle gleaming brightly with a fresh “Nevr-Dull” shine. After folding the flag as we had done at countless sunsets, I presented the star-spangled pillow to the extremely grateful widow. She pressed her warm wrinkled grandmotherly hands gently into mine and pulled me down close to her. As tears welled in her eyes she said. "Thank you so very much for being here." "Thank you Ma'am," I said, "for inviting us." And by then I truly meant it, for in that brief but solemn moment I realized who, in the course of the last four years, I had finally become and who, from that day on, I would never be again-a military man, a United States Navy Sailor. After the funeral we met with the Officer in Charge for a final briefing. The lieutenant leaned back in a chair behind a desk in a small room not unlike the one where I was sworn into the United States Navy four years earlier. He went over some last details: veteran's benefits and such. He seemed genuinely interested in where we would be going from here, asked what we would be doing with our lives. Were any of us married, planning to go to college? Did we know how difficult it was going to be adjusting to civilian life in a world that was no longer the same? He seemed slightly envious. After a while we were just sitting around shootin' the breeze: a small group of men with only one thing in common talking about nothing in particular. And then, at a lull, he casually spoke these blessed and long-awaited words, "Gentlemen, you’re free to leave whenever you want." Free to leave. It was as if, by the way, would we care to have our lives back now... Oh yeah, our lives. And that was it. Our work was done, our obligations fulfilled. We had served and we had survived and the book could now be closed and put on the shelf. And then without looking up from the papers on his desk, the officer asked the last man out, "Would you mind closing the door behind you?" Outside, the “World” appeared bright and new, like I was seeing it for the very first time, like the way it always looked to me as a kid emerging squinty-eyed from the “Liberty Theater” in Camas, Washington after a Saturday matinee. It was a beautiful day, June 12 1970, and one of the happiest days of my life. Suddenly I felt an intense desire to shed my uniform before heading to the airport. I made a beeline straight to the nearest men’s store. “I need everything,” I said with the urgency of a man running from the law. I was a civilian again and I wanted everyone to know it and I also wanted to see it in myself when I looked into a mirror. Now at long last it was time for me to go home, to be with my family, to start our life anew. We had a lot of catching up to do. Christine picked me up at the Eugene, Oregon airport, at the same gate where she had dropped me off thirteen months earlier. I can’t remember if she rushed into my arms, no now I remember that she didn’t. It was a tentative greeting, warm but tense. I asked her to drive. She seemed the same to me at first sight and I could not take my eyes off of her. I studied her in furtive glances as we nervously small-talked the little red Toyota Corona along the narrow twisting highway up through the Oregon Coast Range. She drove like a mouse at the wheel, chain-smoking, looking over at me now and then like I was a cat, the cat that had left home to live and fight in the street. Now I was back and she didn’t quite know what to do with me. I rolled down the window, to look outside for familiar signs, to get some fresh air, trying to reel in my far–flung mind, get it to come back home again. I noticed that a lot of trees had been cut in the time I was gone. Some of the hills were unrecognizable and would not be the same again in my lifetime-nothing would. It almost brought tears to my eyes. Many things were different. But houses we passed along the way had not changed at all as far as I could tell from the outside. Children playing in a yard paid no mind at all to a car traveling down the road towards Toledo. It was nothing to them. This was my WORLD. Darkness was falling by the time we arrived in “Sweet little Toledo.” The tallest smokestack in the Northwest, illuminated by spotlights against the blackening sky, appeared like an immense gray totem at the crests of the winding streets then disappeared, then reappeared again. The familiar sounds of the lumber mills drifted across the slow moving Yaquina and up along the twisting tree-named streets. We drove down Main Street then up the hill past Granny’s before turning up the steep welcoming driveway leading to the house where little Caroline waited with her Grandparents for her Daddy to come home. THE END Epilogue In May of the year 2000 I attended Caroline's graduation from the University of Oregon School of Law. It was a prideful occasion for her mother and me-and a sentimental one. Earlier that spring I had discovered to my utter astonishment that the old rust bucket was still afloat, mothballed in Richmond Bay, California. In recurring dreams I still find myself getting ready for another Westpac. I have forgotten everything I ever knew. I have no uniform--and I’m unable to convince the Captain that I don’t belong on his god-damned ship any more. "Then why are you here Ras," he asks, as the Quapaw gets underway, and my heart sinks in despair at the prospect of four more years of navy life? "Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!" I am always immensely relieved after I drag myself up from the abyss of sleep and back into the real world again. Sometimes it's Vietnam, but it is always the same sad, depressing dream of having to leave my heart and love behind again. The last time I saw the "Quapaw" I said farewell to my shipmates and good riddance to her. Now thirty years later a strange longing called me to California. I had long assumed that the “Quapaw” was scrapped sometime in the early 70s. She was, after all, an old vessel the day I left her and I never imagined her lasting many more years beyond that. Built in the Alameda Shipyards in 1942, she served nobly in three wars. The Quapaw was ancient history, or so I believed. I found her on the Internet, looking better than ever. One picture showed her in the Eighties sporting brand new blue canvas awnings and a new coat of paint as she merrily towed the Battleship USS Missouri from Bremerton to long Beach for reactivation. I could not have been more surprised had I glanced through a boutique window and seen my long-dead Mother inside trying on a new dress. My years at sea, it now appeared, had been only an incidental episode in the Quapaw's long colorful life. I was dying to see her again. In California I stayed with my friends Dick and Jill and their little boy Andrew who live not far from Richmond Bay. Dick was eager to help me find my ship, so after breakfast one morning he fired up his Toyota and we headed toward Richmond Bay. It seemed much too bright a morning to search for an old memory lost in the fog of time, but we were hopeful. Following a number of dead-ends, the morning drifted into the afternoon, and as soon as we had begun to wonder if maybe we weren't on some kind of wild goose chase Dick spots a dilapidated repair shed near the entrance to a marina. We pull over to ask questions. Sliding open the massive wooden door we discovered a long narrow workshop filled to the rafters with things of boats and seafaring. Dusty paned windows run the full length of the dockside wall, casting rectangular beams of sunlight across the nautical clutter. It smelled of fishy wood, torch-cut steel, and fresh paint. Tools and machinery lay everywhere: woodworking and metalworking tools, spare parts, masts, winches, pulleys, line, chain, anchors, and propellers. Anything a boat might need, it seemed, could be found amongst the stores of this one full room. We followed the sound of busy hammering over to a far corner and there we found "Old Cappy" hunched over a workbench. "What can I do for ya," he said without even glancing in our direction until we had finished explaining our reason for interrupting his work? It was obvious by looking at him that this weather-beaten old salt knew every inch of Richmond Bay (he reminded Dick and me of the guy who was eaten alive by the shark in "Jaws”). He told us to go look again where we had been before, only this time go further, “all the way to the end,” he said. Stopping at a security gate, I told the guard what we were looking for and quickly made up a story about writing some kind of article about a ship. The idea occurred to me simultaneously as both a ploy to get us through the gate and as an actual objective, which eventually led to the writing of this memoir. "Ain't no ship by that name ‘round here,” he said, “but you can go have a look for yourselves.” We found two freighters tied up next to each other. One was named the "Quadra." We surmised that Old Cappy didn't hear so well, and so we decided to call it a day. Just when Dick had spun the Toyota around and was heading for home I spotted something vaguely familiar amidst a jumble of masts and black A-frames peeking over the ridge of a nearby roof. My heart quickened when I recognized the unmistakable silhouette that had been tattooed permanently into my psyche, like it is for all sailors, to guide them through fog, or drunkenness, or time, back to their ships. We hurriedly rounded the corner of the building obstructing our view, and there she was, tied to the last dock at the Port of Richmond. The "Mighty Q" rested quietly in a narrow slip next to one of her sisters, ATF 105, the "USS Moctobi." As we started down the pier, Dick put his hand on my shoulder to steady me. The mid-day sun reflected off the Quapaw’s oxidizing coat of haze gray made her shimmer-like a mirage. Transfixed, I seemingly floated from the pier to her deck, completely ignoring the "No Trespassing" signs. I found the port mess-door open and disappeared inside. For three decades this ship has haunted me, now I am the ghost spooking HER passageways, the creaking sound disturbing her sleeping quarters. I glide dreamily up her ladders, to the bridge, and then up higher. Thirty-three years later, there I was once again-a 20 year-old lookout on the flying bridge peering out to sea, searching for the radio tower on Eniwetok, watching flying fish whipping their tales through the bow waves. I felt the breeze and the salt spray in my hair. I remembered a glassy ocean sprinkled with stars and a sperm whale twirling with a giant squid doomed in its jaw—-or was it the other way around? I remembered 70-foot mountains of ocean--the bow rearing high into them, and then plunging deep into green water all the way up to the bridge. I remembered three awful seasick days in a typhoon. I remembered missing Christine. Climbing back down the ladder I instinctively knew the number of rungs and where my hand would fall on each one of them. From the bridge I gingerly slid down the ladder hand-rails to the 02 deck like I had done countless times before and poked my head into the transmitter room to look for the UC-32; it was gone, but amazingly some of the other radios still sat quietly bolted to their racks. Very little had changed really. The ship’s condition was almost pristine, like a vintage automobile kept perfect in a garage, ready to go. Her four big diesel engines sparked. A furnace-like device on the mess deck circulated fresh air all the way down to the bilges. The old girl never smelled better. I got Dick to climb aboard and showed him around. The next day I returned to be alone with the Quapaw one last time. An empty ship is like a deserted town; you hear voices, and one of those voices that day was my own. "Okay old girl, now you're retired--stricken from the Navy and so am I, so leave me alone, please." Weird I know, but here's something weirder. I don't recall the Quapaw ever being backed into any berth or slip, I suppose due to the risk of damage to her rudder or propeller. However, when I returned to her in dreams that was how she was always moored--in a narrow slip tied to another ship. And that is exactly how I found the “Mighty Q” at the Port of Richmond in June 2000. Retired ships it seems, like old sailors, want to look out across the water. Once they longed for the shore; now it is the sea that lifts their spirits—the distant that beckons. All ships retain a lifelong hold, to varying degrees, on the people who served aboard them, a sentimental attachment little understood by others. Perhaps it is merely the connection to youth and personal experience. Whatever the reason might be, finding the Quapaw had a profound effect on me. Walking on her steel decks again flooded me with old memories of my years as a sailor. And now detached from my duty and free to go, I felt reluctant to leave. I wanted to stay and admire the graceful sweep of her sides, the way they gently curve up to her bow, the perfect form for her function. I found beauty in the utility of her lines that I hadn't even noticed as a young man. I finally saw her as she really was--just a lovely old ship. And I was thrilled to find her in such good shape; she seemed still young and so did I. So at long last I bid farewell to the Quapaw, and to the dreams. Post Script With memories of my high school classmate Bobby Coulter reawakened I decided to pay a visit to the website of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. I have never been to Maya Lin’s beautifully conceived monument, but with a few clicks of the mouse I was transported to the “Virtual Wall.” And there I found Bobby on Panel 54W Row 2. I also discovered this. “On June 26,1968, at the age of 22, Robert Lloyd Coulter perished in the service of his country in South Vietnam, Binh Tuy.” That was about 10 months before the day that I remember talking with Bobby Coulter as we leaned against his car and said goodbye for the last time. I don’t know how to account for that discrepancy. The best I can come up with is that we had the conversation on an earlier date when I was home on leave and I combined the memory of it with the memory of another conversation with a different friend. I did stop on the road to talk with someone that day, and very likely the conversation turned to Bobby. Who that friend was I don’t remember, but Bobby must have loomed large in our thoughts—certainly he weighed heavily on my own mind, because he WAS there with us on that April day in 1969, and will remain so forever. A photograph of Bobby and a remembrance were left at the Virtual Wall by his niece Laura. “My Mom’s youngest brother, he taught me how to tie my shoes and tell time. He loved to make people laugh. Nobody in our family has been the same since Bobby has been gone. He was loved so much and missed even more.” And that says it all.