Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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Folks who have read the first two books in my REMF trilogy, REMF Diary and The REMF Returns have marveled at the risk-free tour of duty that the REMF served in Vietnam. They assume that I and the REMF are the same man, that our tours of duty were the same. Not true. There are similarities, I admit. But unlike the REMF, I never served in Italy. I've never even been to Italy. Also, I never had a fixation on Madame Ky, although I did admire her style and felt my heart race when she appeared in her black go-to-hell jumpsuit.
But the REMF books are novels, after all. And my tour of duty was not a novel. In the REMF novels I took every step I could to remove all glory from the war, to produce novels which showed how boring, humdrum and banal the Vietnam War had been.
To produce this effect, I had to leave out even the small moments of risk and adventure I had confronted in Vietnam. Weren't you fired upon, even once, in Vietnam? I'm asked. I usually deny it, but one time a round was fired, possibly in anger, in an area that I was on guard duty, armed and in uniform.
I do not count the time I was part of a large group at a firing range firing for qualifications. A shot exploded from a group of ARVN soldiers next to us. They were being put through the same routine. One of the tiny soldiers did something his sergeant did not like. The sergeant jerked the carbine away from the private and began beating him over the head with it. Somehow it discharged during the pummeling and a shot went into the air. It caught our attention, but no one thought much of it. We were once again glad to be Americans.
I had received perimeter guard duty at Long Binh, drew a weapon with no ammo, and reported for duty in the evening. This duty commenced at sundown and ended at sunup. I was mildly apprehensive, not about the risk of having my throat cut by a V.C., but rather about being inspected by some pistol of a captain who'd ask me chain of command questions or want me to present arms or perform some other arcane military duty. I didn't even like being watched while I typed a memo or a TWIX, and I'd actually become semi-competent at that during the ten months I'd been assigned to be a USARV, IG, stenographer.
Three of us, another other SP4 and a sergeant, were assigned to a bunker for our duty. We had to cross a rice paddy on a boardwalk to get to our bunker. The boards were slippery and I hadn't a clue why. So I asked.
The sergeant informed me. "The tide."
"The tide? What fucking tide?"
"You don't know much, do you?" He then explained to me that when the tide was in the area we just crossed had two or three feet of muddy water over it. I couldn't figure it out. I had not looked at a map of the area so I had no idea where Long Binh was in relation to anything, like the coast or a river. I knew I was about thirty miles sort of north from Saigon, but that was it. I had no interest in the geography, ethnography or any other -ography. I didn't care if the crop was rice, cane or asparagus. I knew the area was known for ceramic elephants about knee high because I'd tripped over them, but beyond that I didn't give a shit about anything in the area. It was rural and I'd grown up in rural Yakima for which I had contempt. I left Yakima in 1960 after I graduated from high school, just to get the hell out of ruralville. At least Yakima had apples. I never saw an apple tree in Vietnam, or an apple either.
Guard duty. We arrived at our bunker. If the French hadn't built it, you could have fooled me. It looked like it was straight out of Beau Geste. It smelled like a latrine. We made ourselves comfortable on the hard concrete floor. I said very little during the hours of duty and neither did the other SP4. The sergeant talked nonstop. The total content of him monologue related to the women of Vietnam and what lousy pussy they were. Several times he told us that his wife was a better fuck. After one of these statements the other SP4, a pimple-faced white boy from Texas, drawled, "Where did you say you hailed from Sarge?"
The sergeant glared at him and wanted to why he asked.
The SP4 just shrugged and said, "Just makin' polite conversation, Sarge. Don't get your tail in a knot."
The sergeant didn't mention his wife again that night. Outside the perimeter was a huge earth mover with a big light on it. It was knocking down big trees like they were wooden matches. The driver sat all alone on his seat like a sitting duck. He looked more vulnerable than a pony express rider thundering through Indian Country. "That's a roman plow," said the sarge. "I wouldn't trade place with the operator, even thought he's getting rich on that thing and we're not."
"What could happen to him, Sarge?" I asked.
"The gooks could get him. The V.C. They are out there," he said and pointed toward the jungle the tractor operator was clear cutting.
"You better believe it. Right out there."
After that we took turns dozing. About two in the morning a shot was fired from the jungle and I jumped out of my doze, adrenaline pumping.
"Look at that," the sarge pointed. The roman plow was still well lighted but its saddle was empty and it traveled in a straight line away from us until it disappeared from our field of vision. We peered out into the night, clutching our ammo-less rifles, wondering.
At dawn we were relieved and recrossed the now flooded paddy on the slippery boardwalk. I parted from my two companions and went to my usual mess hall, ate a hearty breakfast and went back to my barracks, turned in and slept all day.
The wound is a horse of a different color. It was incurred when our company of clerks was mobilized late one night. Our company sergeant explained to us that our mission was to defend the golf course adjacent to our compound from a battalion of NVA who had been reported moving in that direction (this was at Tan Son Nhut before our battalion moved to Long Binh). This time we all received one M-14 each, no ammo, and were taken in trucks to the other side of the golf course where we were instructed to occupy the swampy stinking ditches between the road and the wire fence around the gold course. In dismounting from the trucked I slipped and twisted a knee when I landed crooked on the tarmac. It hurt, but I ignored it. Dead Head Ed and Charlie and I contemplated the ditch we'd been instructed to hunker down in.
"I'll be damned if I'll go down in there," said Charlie in his Tennessee accent. "Leeches."
"Listen to those frogs. What a symphony," commented Ed. They were making quite a racket.
"Where are the NVA?" I asked, favoring my bad knee a bit, but stoic, very stoic, giving my best John Wayne imitation.
"Yes, bring them on. We'll club them to death with our empty rifles." Ed demonstrated a wicked butt stroke.
We stayed there all night, never saw an NVA, were transported back to our company area at dawn in the same truck, ate breakfast, showered and put on fresh jungle fatigues to wear, as was required while we typed all day in our air-conditioned office.
Later Ed and I went over to the bar at the golf course. As we sat at our table sipping gin rickys and looking down from the terrace across the golf course, Ed commented, "The greens look fast, don't they?"
"Yes, they do," I responded. "And don't those sand traps look deep."
"Lucky for those NVA that they chickened out last night or they would have been goners in those sand traps."
"Yes, indeed," I replied. From where we were sitting we could see a colonel take a bogey five trying to extricate himself from a deep sand pit. He looked like he was killing cobras and when he finally emerged onto the green, his face was as read as a red flannel shirt.
"He'll never survive his tour of duty at that rate," commented Ed. We toasted the colonel wishing him ill. After another gin ricky and three gin and tonics my knee felt much better.
"White men should steer clear of Southeast Asia," quipped Ed, his last intelligible remark of the evening. I agreed. We paid up and stumbled home to our hooch.