Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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When folks discover that I'm a Vietnam vet they often ask whether I filled a sandbag or burned any shit when I was in Nam. During my year in country I never heard Vietnam referred to as 'Nam, but I did fill lots of sandbags and burn lots of shit. There even exists a black and white photograph of me and the chaplain's assistant burning shit. We are standing on a defoliated, barren expanse of hard red laterite, naked to the waist, smoke billowing into our faces from the shit we managed to ignite.
We poured gasoline into the sawed off fifty-five gallon drums of shit; it mixed with the piss that was covering the shit. We then lit long sections of toilet paper and dropped them into the barrels, hoping for success.
It wasn't easy to get the mess to ignite. The hard part was getting the piss burnt off the top of the shit. We soldiers were supposed to shit and piss separately but boys will be boys. They didn't give a shit --and so the sawed off barrels contained piss and shit in a very difficult to ignite mixture. The piss in the barrels made the containers even more difficult to carry from the latrines up onto the burning site.
Each barrel had two holes on opposite sides of the lip into which we inserted a long pipe. Each of us took an end of the pipe. "One, two, three." We picked it up and marched off. The barrels were always filled to their very brims. Slosh, slosh, slosh. The piss kept slopping over the edges and splashing our leather and canvas jungle boots.
When we arrived at the burning site, which was upwind from the mess hall, we conjectured that no one would know whether they smelled dinner cooking or our shit burning project. We lit our barrel and stirred the unsavory concoction with the pipe we'd used to carry it up there.
The chaplain's assistant, with whom I was paired, always mentioned Dante's Inferno at the point that the foul smelling plume of smoke shot upward toward the Vietnamese heavens. I always laughed politely, secretly thrilled to be paired with such an erudite fellow. I knew the literary score, having been an English major at the University of Washington.
I also knew that our detail stank far greater than our noses could perceive, but I didn't care. Being evolutionarily advanced I could close my nostrils and not smell a thing. And I am the one man in ten thousand born without the capacity to have wisdom teeth.
The thing I liked about shit burning detail was that it involved no typing and no one supervised or observed us. Everyone steered clear of us, before, during, and after. We were our own bosses; we moved at our own pace. We were the shit Gods and no one fucked with us.
We stirred and stirred and kept pouring gasoline in to keep our obscene stew cooking. After a few hours, only a few crisp giblets of shit remained stuck in the bottom of the barrel. We chipped them loose with our pipes, flipped the honey bucket over and banged on the bottom hearing the shit shards rattle loose onto the brick-like soil. A job well done. We then took our empty container back and got another full one and did it all over again. A simple repetitive task. We enjoyed it.
We did not enjoy filling sandbags. That was a different fatigue detail altogether. It involved direct supervision and a large group of enlisted men. A dozen or two of us, supervised by two or three lifer staff sergeants, would be unloaded from a truck at the sandbag filling site. The sun was hotter for this chore somehow. There were huge bails of green nylon reinforced burlap bags which we had to break loose and fill with short handled entrenching tools. A few hours of this work and I was light-headed, hating the lifers, hating Vietnam, and hating the hooches around which we had to stack the filled bags.
Once filled, the bags weighed sixty to seventy pounds. When the laterite was dry, it was like chipping concrete to get it loose enough to shovel into a bag held by a sorry enlisted man. When wet, it was like shoveling the heaviest, stickiest clay you ever saw.
We asked the sergeants the theory behind stacking these things waist high around our two-story hooches and were told by one of the lifers. "Rocket attacks." When we argued that was a stupid reason because the rockets would come through our roofs, another lifer said, "For when we're overrun by gooks and fighting hand to hand." We laughed at that until he got really angry and made violent threats of bodily harm.
This was in July and August of 1967 and we all knew that Long Binh was a huge, impregnable Little America which would never be threatened by the little brown people we had come to liberate from communism.
We filled bags until our spines felt like they were on fire and our arms felt stretched out so our knuckles would drag in the dirt. I never did this detail with anyone I knew, always with strangers. The sandbag filling did not bond us or make us express camaraderie. I thought of films I'd seen of chain gangs in the South and of Alan Lomax's Folkways recording of prison labor working in teams and of the great Leadbelly. We didn't even have a radio to listen to. It was forbidden. I filled sandbags and wished for Leadbelly, his strong voice and twelve string guitar.
Captain send me down
A cool drink of water.
Just to heal my back, buddy
Just to heal my back.
But this wasn't Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, this was Long Binh, Vietnam. No Leadbelly, no song. But when the lifers pushed us too hard, we'd talk back and slow down and mutter at them.
"What you fucking going to do, send us to Vietnam?"
We were getting short. We had the attitude. We knew exactly how many days we had left, and we had not a clue that in a few months the Tet offensive would change everything in Vietnam. By then I was home in Seattle, watching my hair grow long and listening to Leadbelly records.
Bring me a little Sylvie
Bring me a little water, now
Seattle had plenty of water and not a sandbag or a barrel of shit in sight. I didn't intend to ever think about Vietnam again.