All wars are civil wars, because all men are brothers.
Most of the American troops who deployed to Vietnam, arrived there and returned home in the presence of others who they hadn't known prior or would ever see again, and thus not as a member of a fighting unit. And though surrounded by comrades "in-country," whom we relied upon, we understood all too well that our individual destinies lay on different paths.
This chapter highlights my sense of isolation while on guard duty, as well as my continuous background awareness that harm or death could befall me at any moment.
In ‘Nam, you’re at the front, no matter where you are.
A Brylcreemed crew-cut lifer, positioned at a cheap folding card table outside the guard shack, had examined his papers, ticked off the names of two guys who’d reported ahead of me, and told them, “Plant your heinies, one each, on a bunk inside. That’s where you’ll be sleeping.”
With a glance at me, “Next,” he said.
I stiffened myself as if at attention. “Specialist Hogan reporting, Sergeant.”
“Kissing my ass won’t help you any, Hogan.” He placed a mark by my name, and without a further look at me, directed me with a poke in the air using the eraser end of his pencil, “Grab a bunk.”
My first night of a weekend of guard duty assignment, bad. The second night, worse, me, a zombie with weighted eyelids. The two-hour shifts, separated by rest periods of four-hours, had worn me down and provided no incentive for anything other than sleep. My stint at zero-dark-thirty had turned into a long pull. Yeah, sleep . . . a need grown more pressing since I’d reported yesterday in fresh fatigues to a warehouse in a village adjacent to Nha Trang in South Vietnam, Republic of, where I’d been stationed for my year of ‘Nam duty.
A wooden ladder led up to my guard tower box covered with a slanted tin roof. If Charlie took a shot, AK-47 rounds would shred that plywood like cardboard and tear me open. With little clue to what might occur during my shifts at post, and with six-and-a-half months in-country, I had plenty of ideas about what shit Charlie could do, and by damn, I didn’t want to get caught with my dick in my hand. Maybe, if I remained alert and noticed only one minor detail at a critical moment, I’d live rather than die.
The cold, wet air, which carried the smell of rotted wood, worked its way through my field jacket, nipped my nose and ears, and turned my breath into a visible cloud. A deformed metal folding chair drained body warmth from my ass as I looked out over the eight-foot chain-link fence topped with coils of concertina wire with razor edges and points that made me cringe. Hunched down onto my seat and hunkered into my field jacket like a tortoise, I made myself as small as I could and prayed Charlie hadn’t infiltrated the village. With only one-way in and one-way out through the guard house I felt a prisoner compliant in my own detention.
I scanned the village in front of me, engulfed in a faint glow of fog, illuminated by dim lights positioned along the warehouse perimeter, which once my eyes adjusted seemed to advertise my presence like a neon sign. Hooches, covered with weathered, bare wood siding and rusted tin roofs, lined up in rows. Doors shut. Empty dusty streets, more like afterthoughts and the ground unclaimed for shacks, had no sidewalks or clear boundaries. The absence of trees, grass and flowers broadcast a meager, basic existence. Even the dirt looked poor.
I checked my watch. Damn, hurry up.
In just thirty more minutes, I could climb down, walk to the corner fifty feet away, trudge another hundred-fifty feet to the guardhouse, a dungeon crammed with dingy bunks, reeking with the stench of mold and a gaggle of farting, snoring males, steeped in their B.O. and barely past adolescence. Crashed in my wrinkled fatigues, I would still fall asleep in a New York minute.
I assessed my odds of getting blown away in the final minutes of my shift. A VC “sapper” had plenty of time to crawl up against the fence and cut a hole. Charlie could pop off a few AK rounds from anywhere nearby, a sniper could take a long-distance shot, or a mortar squad could bombard me from beyond the village.
Everything quiet. Had all the dogs been eaten by the locals?
Back home, my family, and even the nerdy guys, proud of their slide rules and pocket protectors crammed with pens and pencils in the engineering classes I’d attended two years ago, were going about their business. I felt like I was on the back side of the moon. Even with an M-14 and authorization to fire, I felt like an oversized thumb, awkward and exposed.
One tower beyond mine to the right along the warehouse perimeter claimed the dead end of our “dog run.” The guy posted there, an even bigger thumb than me in my estimation, faced straight ahead, silent, didn’t move. I hoped he remained awake but didn’t check. I didn’t want to draw more attention to myself.
In the other direction, at the corner and closer to the guardhouse, my friend Don sat in his assigned tower.
“Call me Don,” he’d told me with a twang when we’d met, “I’m just a skinny farmer from Alabama.”
He looked and sounded squirrelly to me, but I liked him right off.
I checked my watch. “Close enough,” I mumbled.
Not another frigging second in that open plywood coffin, I stood, reached around to check if my numbed butt remained attached, then shouldered my weapon before I backed down the ladder as dawn approached.
Let Charlie come on the next guy’s watch.
“Turn left,” I instructed myself—as if that made a rat’s-ass difference, no other way to go. The four-foot wide path, with a six-inch rut down the middle, ran between the warehouse and fence.
I noticed Don just standing, intent on something beyond the fence. Why wasn’t he headed to the guard shack?
I drew closer, heard the high-pitched yells before I noticed the boy—maybe twelve years old—standing six feet beyond the fence, with something clutched in the his right hand.
With a fixed focus, several seconds passed before I recognized the kid held a rock.
Don and the kid glared at each other. The boy had quieted, then Don said, “You little shit,” and aimed his M-14 at the boy.
When I closed to within arm’s reach of him, Don turned “I ought to shoot him.”
“What the fuck?” I said.
The scrawny runt spewed a string of jumbled mix of English and Vietnamese words at Don like they were in a street brawl. The boy was dirty and bare-skinned, wearing only tattered dark shorts. He appeared no major threat, didn’t hold an AK or wire cutters. Likely, on a personal mooching mission gone wrong.
With measured words in a lowered voice, “Don . . . don’t do it,” I said.
Don’s attention remained fixed on the boy. “The little bastard hit me with a rock.”
“Well, that little shit.” I caught myself, “You don’t want to waste him, Don. You could end up busting rocks in Leavenworth, man.”
My muscles tensed, as the boy prepared to heave his rock. Her wasn’t backing off. He rattled off another burst of scrambled words. I didn’t understand a thing he said, but I caught the drift. I wondered what was wrong with that kid. You don’t take a knife to a gun fight, much less a rock.
I understood Don’s reaction. We were both desperate for sleep and who needed a bunch of shit, screamed at you by some half-pint? I wanted to smack the living shit out of him, even thought of pointing my weapon at him.
Then I looked at Don, M-14 still pointed at the kid.
“Don, bag it. Ignore that little fucker.”
Don, quiet, didn’t move.
What we had was a regular Mexican standoff, “Hey, Don, bag it, man,” I said louder. “Ignore that little piss ant.”
Don, otherwise motionless, slowly lowered his weapon. His clenched jaw, he remained focused on the boy.
The boy stared at Don, quiet but defiant.
What the hell had brought all that on, I wondered.
“Come on, guy.” I took a small step, almost up against Don. “Let’s go.”
I glanced at the kid. Don’t dare throw that rock, you little fuck.
Don turned, started down the path. “You fucking little bastard,” he yelled over his shoulder.
I stayed close behind Don to encourage him along. I glanced back several times to see what our pint-sized tormentor might do until I lost sight of him as Don and I neared the guard shack entrance.
Don paused, “Thanks, man. I almost shot that little asshole.”
“That little piece of shit wasn’t worth it, man,” I said, as I laid one hand on Don’s shoulder.
Exhausted, but somehow unable to fall asleep, I replayed the episode, which had lasted no more than a few dozen seconds. Questions about the incident plagued me like octopus tentacles.
If not for me at that moment, would Don have wasted that kid. How many “indigenous personnel,” as we called the Vietnamese, had been blown away in other similar crazy-shit situations? Were we helping kids like him or just making their lives worse?