In the rear area, protected from the war by rows of bunkers and rolls of barbed wire, I rejoined the real United States Army.
Thanksgiving: The first demarcation point, a roadside marking post. It drizzled, the start of the monsoon season. LZ Gator was turned into a gray hill of mud. The mess hall served up a surprisingly toothsome meal of turkey, dressing, two kinds of potatoes, cranberries, pies, mixed nuts. Like a family dinner. Men plodded in from the bunker line, gorged themselves, and stood by the stoves to dry off, then tramped on back to the wire. The FNGs, fresh from the Combat Center in Chu Lai, served the food and obeyed us like good FNGs must. “More, FNG, more!” A tentative smile, a look over at the mess sergeant, then the FNGs dipped in and gave us more.
The daily life: I worked in S-1, battalion headquarters. According to someone’s administrative chart, S-1 was the brains of the battalion, the nerve center or some other such metaphor. But the description was inaccurate. We were bureaucracy, no more or less, albeit a miniature bureaucracy. We processed the FNGs when they came into the battalion. We processed dead people, too, taking casualty reports, keeping logs of how and when and where they died. We processed and processed. Mail. Requests for transfer. R & R applications, applications for leave. We dispensed awards—Purple Hearts, one and the same for a dead man or a man with a scraped fingernail; Bronze Stars for valor, mostly for officers who knew how to lobby. And we gave out penalties, processing courts-martial and reprimands and other such business.
Dull. But the boredom and routine were painless, something like jumping out of a frying pan and into a sort of steam bath, not a fire. I thought about Martin Ross, the gung-ho marine who wrote with such fervor about his Korean War days, about his preference for the front lines over the rear areas. Though I could understand his distaste for monotony it struck me as a major triumph of heroism to give up monotony for its horrible opposite. So I made the best of it, churning out the paperwork like a man who loves his job, making myself indispensable.
Christmas Eve: an office party, Kodak cameras snapping posed pictures to drool over when we get old, a grand feeling of friendship. The adjutant, a young and likable captain, led us in the drinking. The re-up NCO told dirty jokes and war stories, and we laughed at them all. The mail clerk was there. And the casualties clerk, the legal clerk, the awards clerk, the administrative NCO.
Out on the bunker line the men shot up flares and threw hand grenades into the wire, celebrating the occasion, whatever it was. At midnight sharp, the sky over LZ Gator erupted. Star clusters, flares, illumination rounds from the firebase’s mortar tubes. We all went outside to watch. Afterward the re-up NCO and a grizzly master sergeant decided to teach me how to shoot craps, and at 4:30 on Christmas morning they went away muttering about beginner’s luck, the old story. I spent the money on a new tape recorder-radio set.
Christmas Day: duplication of Thanksgiving—drizzling rain, another good meal. We ate while the chaplain played Christmas music over a set of loudspeakers attached to the chapel. Bing Crosby’s “Silent Night,” the Johnny Mann Singers’ “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful.” It was a working day, by administrative fiat. But in battalion headquarters we arranged the day in shifts, one man in the office at all times, a bottle of excellent PX Scotch as a companion.
At midday, the captain sent two of us into Chu Lai, only an eight-mile ride, to pick up enough booze to last through the night. We found the liquor, caught a glimpse of Bob Hope trying to be funny in the rain; then we drove back to the fire base. Around ten o’clock that night everyone straggled into the headquarters building, nothing else to do, and we drank away Christmas, talking about how bad it would be if Charlie decided to attack that night, a good chuckle.
Now and then, to help slice the monotony into endurable segments, floor shows came to LZ Gator. Korean girls, Australian girls, Japanese girls, Philippine girls, all doing the songs and routines and teases that must be taught to them in some giant convention hall in Las Vegas. It was all the same, but variety didn’t mean much. Each show started with one of those unrecognizable acid-rock songs, faded off into “I Want to Go Home—Oh, How I Want to Go Home,” then a medley of oldies-and-still-goodies, none of them very good. Then some humor, then—thank God, at last—the stripper.
The black soldiers would arrive an hour before show time, cameras poised for a shot of flesh, taking the front-row seats. The white guys didn’t like that much. A few whites tried arriving even earlier, but, for the next floor show, the black soldiers were ready and waiting two full hours before curtains-up. The colonel, a married man, slipped into the floor show about halfway through, as if coming just to see how things were going, just checking up. But he was not late for the finale.
Everyone drank. Most of us drank in excess, but the colonel would kill one beer and stop there.
Then the climax came. The men, roaring drunk and with tears in their eyes, would plead with the stripper—beg her, bribe her—to finish the job. But nothing ever came of it. We went away exhausted.
“Jesus,” Bates moaned, sitting down behind his typewriter, dripping with sweat. “Jesus, this isn’t healthy.” He vowed never to watch a stripper again, not unless it was a personal, command performance. Near the end of our tours, Bates and I stopped going to floor shows altogether.
Nights: If you have no friends, if you don’t know the right officers, if you’re unlucky, you pull bunker guard. You stare into the wire, the same hunk of hillside, night after night. But if you work in battalion headquarters, you’re home free. You spend your nights in the office, sleeping on a cot or reading or writing letters or writing a book. You’re there to answer the telephone, but no one calls. Unless it’s a casualty report. In which case you jot down the man’s name, his serial number, the extent of injuries, the grid coordinates, the hospital he’s been taken to. For a moment, just as you hang up the phone, you remember. But you go to sleep again, or return to your book. Or you just sit in the office and listen. The sounds at night are different on a firebase than in the field. There’s rhythm to the sounds. Artillery fire booms out across the hill, huge guns firing in support of the field companies. Mortar tubes pop out illumination rounds over the firebase, lighting things up for the bunker guards. It all disturbs your sleep sometimes, and you find yourself cursing the guns, forgetting and ignoring how they helped you once upon a time, long ago, back in the old days when you were a soldier.
LZ Gator was attacked only once while I finished out my tour. Sappers were inside the wire before anyone knew it. With perfect cunning, perfect timing, they slipped in, blew up a pile of ammunition, killed a man, hurt some others. In the morning, we combed the hill. Altogether, six dead Viet Cong. Some officers loaded them into a truck and drove them down to a village at the foot of LZ Gator and dumped them in the village square.
R & R: like going home. Sydney, Australia. Buddy Greco sang songs for me in the lounge of Sydney’s Chevron Hotel: once upon a time, very long ago. You know the atmosphere? Dark club, girls strewn about like so many loose flower petals. Greco’s sweet, slow, caressing music, backed by muted trumpet and sax and piano and crystal champagne glasses. I had a girl with me. The R & R Center lined her up when I arrived. I got off the plane, listened to a lecture on decorum, then went to a row of desks where old ladies sat with huge card files full of eager Australian girls.
An old woman picked out a name and dialed the number: “Hello, Sally? This is Hilda de Grand, here at the R & R Center. I have a nice young man here, he’d like to know if you’re busy this evening? No? Yes? Oh, yes. A nice, handsome young man. Yes, black hair, just as you had down on your card. Here, I’ll put him on.”
“How do you do.”
“Fine. Thanks.” I forgot how to do it. “I, uh, just got in. From Vietnam.” This is ridiculous. Doesn’t she know?
“Oh, how nice.”
“And do you like Sydney? Beautiful city, don’t you think?”
“It’s great. Anything is great, you know.” Anything. She could look like a dachshund.
“I suppose so. All the boys say Vietnam is a positively ghastly place.”
“You’re a soldier? Some are navy people.”
“Well, you’ll like Sydney.”
“Haven’t seen much of it yet. Actually, all I’ve really seen is the R & R Center. And the airport. The weather’s nice.”
“Chilly—terribly chilly for this time of year.” The pause, a cue.
“Well, perhaps we can warm it up together.” Starting to get back in the groove, a long time away.
“Fine, perhaps we can.” She didn’t laugh, but she didn’t back away either. “What do you have in mind?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” It didn’t seem possible. What did she think I had in mind, for Christ’s sake? But I was civilized, I remembered that. “Buddy Greco? Dinner. Drinks.”
Sally turned out to be nice. Buddy Greco, though, was superb. The club—all the warm feelings, the cordialities—was better.
I didn’t fall in love. I spent most of my time alone, searching out the libraries, hitting bars at night, going to the ocean once. Then, for the last night, I visited the old ladies again and celebrated my departure with a girl named Frances.
After R & R, Vietnam was no longer even an adventure. Returning from R & R was something like walking out of one of the floor shows. Sweating, drained, blood boiling. Then back to the second-class war of the rear area.
After a long lapse in our correspondence, I began writing to Erik again. His tour in Vietnam was nearly over:
I’ll be taking a flight, that phoenix we both dream of, and I keep thinking how proper it would be for us to take it together. Leaving this land is an experience to be shared. But, for now, I wait, as you too must be waiting. Along with waiting, however, I try to keep a certain perspective—my old perspective as a watcher of things—and what I see lately is no good. This morning, coming out of the hooch, I watched as a junior officer literally kicked a Vietnamese woman out of the company area adjacent to ours. I watched. The observer, the peeping tom of this army. Doing nothing. I was suddenly sickened by the thought of the near two thousand years that separate my life and that of a Roman centurion who stood by a narrow alley leading to Golgotha and who also watched, doing nothing.
What difference then? What earthly change have centuries of suffering and joy wrought? Is it only that Christ is become a yellow-skinned harlot, a Sunday-morning short-time girl?
Needless to say, I am uncomfortable in my thoughts today. Perhaps it’s that I know I will leave this place alive and I need to suffer for that.
But, more likely, what I see is evil.
With letters and Scotch whisky and with a comfortable but confining blanket of rear-area security, I settled down to wait.