By God, Dai Uy!
You Were a Pretty Mean Sum Bitch!
Copyright 2003. Stew Harris. All rights reserved.
More than thirty years has passed since we all left Vietnam. That is enough time for the psyche to choose which memories will be retained and which discarded, for wounds of both body and mind to heal, promises made to be forgotten. A few friendships endure and have even strengthened, but most have not withstood the strains of peace and distance and time.
Events, once terrifying, are now retold as hilarious. Scrambling into the bunker and realizing the bastards missed you again. Pointing out bullet holes in the tin overhead of the hootch and telling visitors that your only concern was that it might rain before you could get it patched. Climbing up on a large burial mound to escape knee deep flood waters, only to discover every snake within a mile had the same idea.
Old color slides of the bucolic countryside are shown along with those of smiling faces belonging to young men now grown old. Friends and family have learned what to say and what not to ask. Don’t ask about the third guy from the right. He didn’t make it. And the old VC flag with bullet holes in it, a trophy at the time, remains folded and buried deep in the closet.
If the passing of years has not caused memories to grow dim, they have at least softened the edges.
Our little coastal group, or junk base, was a small fort made out of coconut logs and mud in the middle of nowhere. It was defended by seventy or so Vietnamese sailors with four USN advisors attached. This team consisted of two officers, an O-3 and an O-2 plus two senior (E 5, 6, 7 or 8) enlisted. One of the enlisted would be an engineman able to assist the Vietnamese with keeping the diesel engines aboard their junks in proper working order. The second would come from the deck rates, either a boatswain mate or a gunners mate.
For those of you not having been blessed by traveling on the sea and learning the wonders of the world’s oceans, boatswain mate is the oldest rate in the U. S. Navy. When the first ships of the brand new United States Navy put to sea in 1775, boatswain mates were there to handled the lines, set the sails and maintain the ship‘s gear. When the Navy transitioned from wood to steel, boatswain mates were still there, still handling lines but also chipping paint and maintaining the hull.
As the Navy added radios and radar and missiles and other gee whiz stuff, it effected the boatswain mates not one whit. They continued to chip paint, tie knots, and handle lines. It was a tough rate in which to advance. A man with twenty years service rated only as an E-4 was not uncommon. By tradition, that man would also have had several Captain’s Masts in his record, accounting for a few of the missing “crows.” A tough rate. Enginemen were easier to get along with and, of course, the officers were damn near perfect.
But all that was long ago and far away when, a couple of Saturday nights ago, my phone rang. “Hello,” I said, thinking it would be a taped request that I buy a time share.
“Hello,” said a flat, male voice. At least it wasn’t a tape machine and I would be able to cuss out a live telemarketer. “Is your name Stewart Harris?”
“Yes,” I said suspiciously, expecting to be offered a new mortgage/vacuum cleaner/used car.
“Were you in the Navy?” The voice sounded familiar, but the question threw me off.
“Yes,” I said, paying more attention.
“In Vietnam? At Coastal Group 16?” The voice showed some life for the first time. There was a Texas accent.
The tumblers on a forgotten door in some part of my mind began to whirl. “Yeah, that’s right. Who is this?”
“You probably don’t remember me,” he said, beginning to explain.
The tumblers fell into place and the door swung wide open. “Like hell I don’t! Patrick, J. C., Boatswain mate! E-5! Well, I’ll be damned. How the hell are ya, Boats?”
General laughter and a lot of “I’ll be damned” followed. He gave me a sketch of what had happened since we had parted. Patrick had left the Coastal Group on emergency leave. When we got the message, Pat didn’t want to go home. The word was that his wife was ill. He pronounced her a hypochondriac of the first order, although he didn’t use any of those words. I pretty much insisted. My theory was that anyone who had a chance to get out of CG16 ought to take it. The coastal group was not a really prime duty assignment. Emergency leave would get him out of there, at least for a while.
In the end, Pat took the leave and never returned. This time, just like W. C. Fields, Pat’s wife was really sick. She died a week after Patrick reached her.
By the time Patrick finished taking care of personal affairs, he had been replaced at the junk base. He had four months in country and could have begged off being sent back. Instead, he volunteered for PBRs in the Delta. A tour and a half there, back to the fleet for a brief time and then retired as an E-7 Chief Boatswain mate. From the Navy he went to the merchant marine. After seventeen years in that fleet, a container fell on his foot, leaving him disabled and medically retired. Along the way, he had acquired and lost two more wives. He was living in Orlando with a lady of less than perfect virtue, drawing both a Navy and a merchant marine retirement, studying to become a cake decorator -- what else would a retired boatswain mate do -- and restoring a 1957 Corvette. Not the stuff of Nobel Prizes, but not bad.
Inevitably, we began to reminisce about the junk base. It was an outpost with no water, no electricity, no security and bad food. We spent most of our time working to remedy those problems while trying to teach a bunch of Vietnamese sailors -- most of them rejects from the “real” South Vietnamese Navy -- how to be infantrymen. I will admit that at the time, I had some concern about the cosmic problem of defending South Vietnam against Communist aggression, but my main interest was keeping my team alive. Sometimes those goals coincided, sometimes they did not.
I made tight rules. No team member would go anywhere on land without a second American and both must be armed. We maintained a 24/7 radio watch, even when we were short a man. There was plenty of beer in the frig -- after we got one -- but the bar closed at five in the afternoon. There was no hard liquor aboard. While uniform rules were pretty loose, you were required to have a full kit available with about 60 seconds notice in case some unannounced “wheel” came in by huey. Everybody was required to have a plan and schedule as to what they were going to do to help the VNs in their particular specialty and how they were going to execute it.
And then there was the war. Probes against the base on a regular basis. Night ambushes given and received. Rockets at the junk as you pulled away from the pier. VC with megaphones, calling you out by name. But the junkies gave better than they got. I did not keep a scorecard, but the count must have been something like a dozen of ours against about sixty five or seventy of theirs. We even managed to capture an NVA colonel. And the Americans did even better. When I left, it was the first time the advisory team at Coastal Group 16 had put together a twelve month streak with no Americans on the KIA list. I was kinda proud of that. The streak was broken ten days after I left.
All and all, with Patrick on the phone, I looked back at that year and was of the opinion that we had done pretty well in a difficult environment. Pat did not share that opinion.
“Why’d ya come back in PBRs? I’m sure you could have gotten another coastal group.”
“Naw,” said Patrick. “I didn’t want ta risk it.”
“Risk it? That doesn’t sound right, Pat. I heard that the plastic boats in the Delta were pretty exciting.”
“Well, yeah, Dai Uy,” he said, slipping back into titles that were a third of a century out of date. “There were a lot more fire fights. But I didn’ want to get back to somethin’ like your place.”
“Oh, come on, Pat. Sixteen wasn’t that bad. You got shot at once in a while, but we had some good times. At least, once we got the refrigerator up and running. We even had a couple of steak cook outs. One time after you left we got some Mennonite nurses to come out for a picnic and a little water skiing. You shoulda hung around.”
“Maybe, Dai Uy, maybe,” he said thoughtfully. “But I think maybe I wasn’t cut out to hang around with officers and stuff.” And stuff? “In the Delta, I had my own boat from the start and I got a section of ‘em on my second tour.” Even over the phone, I could hear him thinking from 3000 miles away, choosing his words carefully. “We went through a lot o’ shit, but it was pretty much our own shit.”
“Well, Pat,” I said, trying to take him away from this subject. “I’m glad you made it home. That’s the big thing.” But I couldn’t let sleeping dogs lie. “But ya must of had officers in the Delta. They had to be around.”
“Well, they were, Dai Uy. It’s just that they had their place and we had ours. Almost never saw ‘em on the river. And back at the base, after you made your report, they left us alone. It wasn’t like bein’ at the junk base where everybody’s always together.”
He was right; we had all been together. And I thought we had handled pretty well. No officers and enlisted, more a structure of “one, two, three, four.” Of course, that had left Pat as number four. Watches were shared equally. Everybody took their turn cooking and washing dishes. In the Fleet, neither officers nor senior enlisted cooked or washed dishes. They didn’t do it in the Delta, either.
“And,” he continued, “when ya went out, you were pretty much on your own.”
There was only one incident I could think of on that subject. Pat was going on a night patrol on one of the junks. As he saddled up to go, I insisted that he take a helmet and flack jacket. He didn’t want to. He complained that he wouldn’t need it. I agreed, sort of. “Probably not,” I had said in a voice a little too loud. “But, by God, if you need it, you’re not gonna not have it ‘cause you were too damn lazy to carry it down the pier!” I know the other advisors heard me. Probably some of the junkies as well. “If the gear doesn’t go, neither do you!” At least I had my double negatives under control by that time.
The following morning, he returned from an uneventful night on the ocean, threw the flack jacket in the corner and said, “See? I told ya I wouldn’t need it.” I didn’t even answer him.
And, there was the time his best buddy wanted to extend. Cook was our Engineman First Class (E-6). He had come to Vietnam as an Engineman striker (E-3) with the job of keeping a few Navy jeeps in Danang running. He had done that job well enough but he had an affinity for languages. Before long, he was speaking Vietnamese better than anyone who had attended the language school. He gravitated into the advisory group and extended. And extended.
An Engineman First Class in the Fleet could be the senior engineman aboard a destroyer. Cook was already a first class. One more extension and the Navy would make him a Chief. And he had never been to sea. I would not extend him. Even the folks in Danang were surprised. But I could just see some junior engineering officer reporting aboard his first DD to find a Chief Cook who knew even less about ships than he did. Cook went home. And Pat hadn’t liked it.
Maybe ol’ Coastal Group 16 hadn’t been Nirvana. Maybe we weren’t always of good cheer. Perhaps we didn’t always tumble into the bunker, laughing at the futility of those evil VC guys. There was a chance it wasn’t that funny when they put 51 cal into the overhead. Maybe Pat didn’t have such a good time.
“Yeah, I gotta say, Dai Uy. It wasn’t all bad bein’ away from officers. I don’t think ya meant it. But ya know, by God, Dai Uy. You were a pretty mean sum bitch!”
There was absolutely nothing hostile in Pat’s voice. It was simply his observation. Too much time had past for the institution we had both served to have a position on this subject. It was just something he wanted to say. So, he did. After 33 years.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” I said. I made a couple of attempts to kid him off of this tack. He really didn’t want to change course. He made no more remarks to support his position, but he had no interest in talking about anything else. To the end, there was no rancor.
Finally, we parted civilly, exchanging both phone numbers and email addresses. We exchanged three or four notes, then his email address was suddenly no longer valid. The phone number has been disconnected.
So, once again, Patrick is gone from me. His memory does not grow dim, but the edges have softened.
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