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I had watched the fire barrel, a 55 gallon drum
at the corner of the hootch for the past two weeks.
It was not out of curiosity, though I was curious,
but dread of what I knew was in store for me and
that barrel. Each day, the crewmembers of Medevac,
brought leftovers from the mess hall and
dumped them inside the barrel adding to the stench of the previous day's
fermenting garbage. One could hardly pass the thing on their way to the
showers or latrine without being overwhelmed by the odoriferous onslaught
of putrefied waste; even the smell of diesel and dung in flames, held a
sweetness compared to the dreaded barrel.
I stared at the barrel with trepidation, knowing we had a common destiny,
but unaware of when that time might come. I almost wished this inanimate,
stinking, repository could speak; that it could forewarn me of the coming
events. One of my new friends, at Medevac, had appraised me of the ritual;
a kind of passage that each crewmember must endure in order to gain the
acceptance of these wild crazy men of the sky. These warriors who
swooped down into hot LZs to pluck the wounded from the jaws of death;
men who held their grit while hoisting patients and withstanding the
withering fire of Charlie Cong. I was both exhilarated and mortified at the
prospect of joining their ranks; from Infantryman, to leading Montagnards,
and now, to flight, yet, maintaining that razor's edge of life and death, as
adrenaline coursed through one's veins. I had decided to become a
Medevacer, at any cost.
Finally, the uncertainty drew to a close; about an hour before darkness
came, I was informed that tonight would be the night. My initiation was at
hand; the proper concoctions of rotten food, ceremonial hemp and a shot,
or two, of booze having been added to the red receptacle, I was to undergo
my formal christening into the unit; 15th Medevac.
As crew chiefs, medics, gunners, clerks, maintenance members and others
began to appear, alcohol flowed freely, but not for me. There was a reason
for this, as I was later to learn. They milled around, joyously, at the
prospect of my coming discomfort; waiting for the pilots to put in their
appearance. Mike Vinyard, crew chief extraordinaire, had a penchant for
carrying a .45 Colt Automatic, rather than the standard issue .38 Police
Special that everyone else wore, except Ferg; he favored a captured
Tokerev. To pass the time and, of course, heighten my discomfort, it was
decided that I should be blindfolded and made to
reassemble his trusty weapon. The general attitude was, that with Mike
being the only one familiar with the weapon, it would cause me great
consternation completing this task.
So it was that I was placed on a lounge chair, blindfolded with Dan Brady's
scarf and handed the weapon. To everyone's puzzlement, and my delight, I
cleared the weapon, tore it down to its basic components, smiled, and put it
back together again. Unbeknownst to the assemblage,
I was on very intimate terms with the .45, as well
as with a myriad other small arms. To say the least,
I had gotten off on the right foot.
As darkness approached, the crowd became more
raucous and the pilots appeared; having already
fortified themselves with numerous rounds at the O Club. It was time to get this little party underway and, if not for my
informant, I would have gone into the whole affair weary of the outcome,
but with the coaching of this anonymous tipster, I had a few ideas of my own. Reedy, Arky, Brady, Tom, and others, escorted me outside to the
barrel; the stinking dreaded barrel where a crowd of some, 40 to 50
members of Medevac were assembled in various stages of inebriation.
all I had to do was follow instructions.
Little Okie seemed to be the Master of Ceremonies, chewing that large cud
of tobacco, affectionately called "The Roach". The name was derived from
its appearance, looking much like the huge Florida beetle, after being used
and spit from the mouth to the ground. Like the tracks of a train, you could follow Okie's movements by the discarded roaches on the ground. Several
grasping hands helped me climb into the barrel of slime, while others
chuckled and whispered unheard jokes. Someone handed me a beer, a hot
beer; I was to chug-a-lug beer until I puked. It doesn't take a lot of hot
beer in a rancid barrel to turn one's stomach so, midway through the fifth
beer, I barfed. Then, to add insult to injury, eggs were broken and placed
inside a steel pot, which was placed on my head, and I was instructed to
sink down to my chin in the gooey slime and sing the Medevac Song. Not
knowing the words, my hearty cohorts helped me with the lyrics. Then, as I
again rose to a full upright position, a bayonet was placed between my teeth, in true John Wayne fashion, as Johnny Uebelacker and others
snapped away with their trusty cameras. Once this was over, there was to
be one final insult.
The Roach, which Okie had been coddling all this time, was removed from
his mouth and offered to me. It would be an insult to refuse this cherished
symbol of manhood and so, I placed it in my mouth. Little did the crowd
know that my tipster had, also, informed me that no other member could
refuse it, either. So, with great aplomb, after a couple of exaggerated
chomps, I passed it to another of the men. He, in turn, took his chaw and
passed it; over 40 men passed the roach that night.
Finally, they decided that I had been a good sport, they were drunk enough
and we could remove my carcass from the barrel and throw me in the
shower. I shocked everyone with a dare; there was an above ground
swimming pool down by the green line and I dared them all to strip and
follow me down, in the middle of the night, for a midnight swim and clean up. Medevacers were never to be outdone so, we all stripped on the
spot, headed across the flight line and down to the pool. The "Old Man",
Payne, even drove down in a jeep with our beer.
There we were at a pool party at two o'clock in the morning; playing
volleyball in the water and having one heck of a good time. Someone,
knocked the ball out of the pool and out into the barbed wire of the green
line. The men manning the bunkers were beside themselves and, I guess, someone called it in. Fergy crawled through the razor wire to retrieve the
ball and received the only wound that night, for his trouble, a laceration
one of his butt cheeks. Even that didn't dampen our spirits.
As a result of the report from the guard, the M.P.s arrived to break up our
little party, but laughed so hard that they could hardly contain themselves.
They actually talked us into returning to our own area and offered to give
us an escort. There we were, 40 plus strong, naked, walking up the road in
the glare of their headlights singing the Medevac Song. I was a Medevacer,
officially. Acceptance was instantaneous and mutual; I had a family, now.
It was the last swim we had in that pool. I suppose the V.C. decided that we
didn't deserve such luxuries and, shortly thereafter, perforated our beloved
pool with rockets and mortars. I would have to wait until my turn to go to
the field site at LZ Mace, with a short hop to Ham Than and the South China
Sea to swim again, but that crazy night in June of 1970, I'll never forget.
Old gunners never forget.
[ Return To Index ]
A Fire at the An Khe Theater!
Wait, wait, wait. The passage of time was beginning to exact its burdensome
toll: anxiety and frayed nerves. When I had finished chow, I walked the 50
or so yards from the HHC Mess Hall to the Battalion Aid Station to await
the Dispensary driver. At around 1930 hours, several guys mildly taunted,
"Are you still here? Maybe they ain't coming for you, slick. Look, there's always the club." Maybe Babcock wasn't coming. What should I
believe? The scheduled 1800 hours rendezvous had long since passed. Never the less, I did not want any part of the EM
club. I was not enamored with the prospect of
finding delightful companionship and intellectual
stimulation. Nor, did I have a thirst that needed to
be quenched. If I wanted a Pepsi generation drink, I
could scrounge up something. Besides, if I were
inclined to drift away from the Aid Station, I would
have headed over to the nearby 15th Med Medical Laboratory. Sergeant Johnson or Sergeant Anderson
would welcome me, and I would bathe in the intellectual stimulation they
They knew that I had been a student before Sam stamped me with
the US prefix; and, they encouraged me to follow through on my plans to
complete my education. They were helpful in pointing out the benefits that
the GI bill offered. Moreover, through associating with these out of the
ordinary NCOs, I learned things that had useful applications. By observing
and discussing their work, I learned about specimen preparation and
analytical procedures. The knowledge that I gained was indispensable when Dr. Packanowski asked me to perform several types of tests. Too, Anderson
and Johnson always had something unusual to relate. There was the time, for
instance, when Hugh O'Brien came to the Lab to have a malaria smear
done. That's, Hugh O'Brien, the actor who played Wyatt Earp in the
Warner Brothers TV series!
But, I suppressed the desire to visit the Lab,
because an incident that occurred when I worked for Sergeant Green dusted
me with distasteful psychological residue. In a sense, I was gun shy. I did
want to contend with harassment and cutting remarks. Yet, there was a glow
of humor that took the edge off of my anxiety. There was that memorable
time when I figured that Bell would arrive late, and I decided to saunter
to the EM club. No sooner had I walked through the door, and I was stricken
by the incredulity of the vision before me. I knew this guy when I was in
Basic Training at Fort Bliss, Texas! He wore the chevrons of a SP5, but he
was a SP4 when he had been the Company Clerk of Delta-3-3.
I excitedly called out. Snell instinctively snapped his head toward the
my voice and fixed his gaze on me. His bespectacled face projected a
look. Yeah, I know this guy, but from where? "Snell!", I repeated. "Basic
Training at Bliss! Remember?" I continued to approach the bar, where he was
seated. Then, the spark of recognition was ignited, and he excitedly thrust
a hand shake. "Right! Holy shit! This f_ _ _ _ _ _ Army is something else.
Whoever said "small world wasn't kidding. Least not as far as
the Army goes." We reminisced for hours. And, I did something that really
smacked of poor judgment. I quaffed staggering quantities of rum and Coke,
courtesy of SP5 Snell. The clock merrily ticked away to 2230 hours. Then,
SP4 James Bell made his appearance. And, he was mad. "Man, where the f_
_ _ you been? You don't even want to know what's waiting on
you!" I nodded at Snell, and in a rambling monologue, I argued that Bell
was the culprit. He blew the 1800 hours rendezvous. Bell contorted his
sweaty face. "Say, what? Man, you're f_ _ _ _ _ -up! Hope you like going to LBJ!"
When I arrived at the Villa, at 2300 hours, my reception
committee was less than hospitable. Only skillful oratory and an act worthy
an Oscar persuaded Sergeant Green that I was fit for duty. Miraculously,
spirits-induced giddiness fled from the stone, cold reality that laced me.
prospect of being sent to Bong Son was no joke. My interlude was
terminated by Babcock's welcomed arrival at around 2000 hours. "Hey,
Babcock!" I called out. "What's up? I hope Carney knows this ain't my
fault!" Babcock waved me off. "No, uh-uh. Everything's numba one. We
have a bad thing going on. The theater caught fire and a whole bunch got
f _ _ _ _ _ - up." I anxiously inquired, "Any burn casualties?"
of burns was basic - that is, burns have always been the nastiest of wounds;
and, if not treated under a strict, sterile field, infection could rapidly
causing the patient to experience an agonizing death. Babcock shook his
head, "No, nothing severe. But, we have beaucoup cuts, abrasions, facial
injuries, and some broken bones the 616th will handle. " No severe burns. I
was relieved. "And, what about IVs?" I asked, tentatively. I had an anti-IV
disposition, due principally to my negative experiences with Sergeant Green
and SP5 Harry Nelson. "Beaucoup!", Babcock drew out the last syllable.
"So what else is new?", I glumly replied.
At that, I could feel the
beginnings of a knot in my stomach. The night shift, especially, inflated my
angst. Many were the times when, after being given the "works" by Green
and Nelson, I had to deal with situations that could have reduced anyone to
the dysfunctional state. I could not speak the language, I could not listen
to a patient's pleas and importunities with understanding. And, I could not
assuage the misunderstandings of family members and friends. Their
reasoning apparently was, if the content of an IV bottle were emptied in
order, the medicine would be replaced and that would benefit their sick
mother, uncle, or whomever. Far too often than I cared to recount, my
to follow all doctor's orders to the T, as Sergeant Green had written on
the patient's logbook, were awash in a sea of tears.
the PF Medics, Thai, Thua, or Duc would mercifully rescue me and explain why
the IV should not be tampered with. Fortunately, no patient was lost due to
faulty IV treatment. Never the less, the persistent down-side of IV
had to be dealt with: collapsed veins and the resultant infiltration of IV
An infiltrated IV could miraculously transform a puny arm into one of
Herculean proportions. The patient also suffered from the accompanying
discomfort. Additionally, there were my often abortive attempts to restart
IV. In some patients, finding an uncollapsed vein was improbable, if not
impossible. Frustration, kindled by the tirades of SP4 Dave Simpson,
pushed me perilously close to the limit of endurance.
Simpson had been with
Charlie Company, in Phan Thiet, before he was assigned to the Dispensary.
Simpson greeted Babcock and I as we pulled into the Dispensary compound,
just shy of 2030 hours. Simpson briefed me on the injuries sustained,
Doctor's orders, and treatments in progress. As I scanned the wards, I confirmed
what Babcock had told me: there were, indeed, beaucoup patients receiving
IV treatment. I struggled to achieve a semblance of inner composure. After
all, Green and Nelson had DROSed , and under the oversight of Carney and
Rozzelle, my situation had moderated. But Simpson's presence and a
compilation of bad experiences caused my well established defense
mechanism to take control: survival by not letting anyone play with my mind.
So it was that images of canned Ramar Of The Jungle scenes flashed through
my mind: the Savannah was ablaze and thundering herds of elephants,
rhinos, giraffes, zebras, and wildebeests were fleeing from the advancing,
engulfing flames. The TV commercial for a popular kids cereal, Crispy
blended into these out of place images: The one and only cereal that comes
the shape of animals! Then, the things that I imagined had happened during
the fire - the confusion, panic, and stampeding- became juxtaposed with the
bizarre mélange that danced and swayed through my mind. This was
absolutely ludicrous as well as highly inappropriate for the current state
affairs! Yet, all I could do was laugh. Predictably, that fractured Simpson's
fragile shell of tolerance; and, in his Down East accent he yelled, "What
_ _ are you laughing about?" I knew I needed breathing room. So, I
retreated beyond Simpson's reach. I shrugged and coolly replied,
"Simpson, if I told you, you wouldn't believe me."
I could feel the
nastiness of the scowl etched on his sweaty face, as I turned obliquely to
the Ward full of patients. It was another hot, sultry night in An Tuc. I
the generator would not quit. I had patients to attend. And...beaucoup IVs to
monitor. Reflections: The An Khe Theater was a very popular center of
entertainment for the locals. Films were shown, but mostly, stage
performances and music were offered as live performances. Westerners
would be reminded of opera if they attended such a performance.
Fortunately, the structure was sturdy, and was not composed of wholly fire-
prone materials. If it had been one of the usual wooden fire traps, the
situation on that night, so very long ago, would have been dire beyond
imagination. The people who were in need of assistance were glad that the
Dispensary medical services were available that hectic night. Thankfully,
casualties were relatively light. What became of the theater? Well, it is as
good today as it has ever been. A tourist confirmed this by means of the
print that he brought back. A physical connection to the past sometimes can
grant a measure of satisfaction. Still, though, the desire to know the
that happened during the intervening years is irrepressible.
[ Return To Index ]