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I had watched the fire barrel, a 55-gallon drum
at the corner of the hooch for the past two weeks. It was not out of
curiosity, though I was curious, the 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.
at the barrel with trepidation, knowing we had a shared 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 gaining 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.
uncertainty ended; 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 immediate
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 Tokarev. To pass the time and, of course,
heighten my discomfort, I had to disassemble and reassemble his trusty
weapon blindfolded. 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
essential 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
myriad other small arms. To say the least, I had gotten off on the right
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.
At the dreaded stinking barrel was a crowd of some, 40 to 50 members of
Medevac assembled in various stages of inebriation.
Now, 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 came from its appearance, looking much like the Florida
beetle, after being used and spit on 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 does not take a lot of warm
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 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 fully 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 also had, informed me that no other member could refuse
it. With great aplomb, after a couple of exaggerated chomps, I passed it to
another of the men. In turn, he 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. Fergie crawled
through the razor wire to retrieve the ball and received the only wound that
night, for his trouble, a laceration of one of his butt cheeks. Even that
did not 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 talked us into returning to our area
and offered to escort us. There we were, 40 plus muscular, 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 did not deserve such luxuries and, shortly after, perforated
our beloved pool with rockets and mortars. I would have to wait until my
turn to go to the field site at L.Z. 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.
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