On the ground at last, after the long flight from Guam, the plane taxied past sandbag-clad heavy steel revetments surrounding bombers and fighters on three sides. As we rolled to a stop, the flight attendant popped the door, allowing the cool cabin air to escape. Tropical heat-asphalt-softening, frying eggs on a sidewalk heat-washed in like a sunny surf, carrying unfamiliar smells. It was Saigon in late September 1967. A throng of cheering khaki-clad soldiers in loose formation waved and beckoned to us from the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut. They laughed and shouted as kids on a playground, all the while looking about as secret service agents do during a presidential walk on a crowded street. A year later, I would better understand their uneasy excitement. Barring a last-minute attack, they had survived their year in Vietnam. They would fly back to "the world" in the plane we exited.

    Wasting no time assembling here, we went straight from the ramp onto a prison bus. At least it looked like one. The kind of bus that hauls convict work gangs around some places in America, guarded by shotgun-shouldered Bubbas in Smokey hats. Only we weren't the criminals. The bars and mesh covering the windows were there to protect us. How odd, I thought, we were here to protect the Vietnamese but we must be protected from them. Yet, on the busy streets we traveled, other military personnel walked freely about or rode in jeeps while Vietnamese civilians sped about on mopeds and bicycles. Other locals fearlessly shopped at the colorful stalls crowding sidewalks along the narrow streets. It was the first of many incongruities, in a year filled with them.

 

Copyright © 2007 by John Maberry

      Seagram was about 5'5" and built like a burly fireplug. From his stature, another guy in the unit aptly nicknamed him "Stubby." Of course, we didn't call him that to his face, a face with more craters and gullies than that of Keith Richards. Stubby often said, to anybody in earshot of his frequent rants, "I've been in this Army 26 years; I was here before you were and I'll be here after you're gone. You don't have to accept me, I have to accept you!" Or he might add, whenever he had the least suspicion that someone doubted the wisdom of his orders, "and I outrank anybody in this unit except the CO (Commanding Officer)!" Which wasn't literally true. Stubby was a master sergeant. Although they were at the same pay grade, the E-8 first sergeant outranked him, but then he didn't appear to respect the first sergeant anyway. He certainly didn't appear chummy with him or the other NCOs. He seemed to be on the best terms with an officer, the major who was Battalion S-3.

      Stubby drank hard and heavy. Everyone learned to stay away from him the morning after, as well as in the evening after he got his load on. But stone cold sober, he was still a mean son-of-a-bitch. Spanish is the native language of most Puerto Ricans, but that didn't exclude them from the draft. On one occasion, Stubby started baiting a Puerto Rican kid he overheard conversing with a friend in Spanish.   

"You're in the American army, speak English!" Seagram said.

"Que?" ["what" in Spanish] The kid reflexively responded.

"What's the matter, puta [Spanish for whore; equivalent to calling a guy a bitch today], you got trouble with English?" 

At this, the kid glowered, appearing roused to fight. Stubby egged him on.

 

Copyright © 2007 by John Maberry

        Despite my indiscretions, or perhaps because of them, going to church seemed like a good idea since Christmas was coming up soon. I held only a smidgen of hope that the chaplain would provide any profound message of inspiration. It was more the ritual that I sought. A way to make a connection with something more pure than the immoral morass in which we lived as soldiers in Vietnam. Given the number of Protestant denominations, chaplains for each and every one of them were not available at every base. Oftentimes, a somewhat generic Protestant service was all there was. This was the case at Bearcat.

      So I went to the Protestant chapel where I waited and waited. Chaplain Vladimir kept conferring with his enlisted aide, spec-4 Estragon (the names have been changed to protect the guilty and gratify those who enjoy literary allusions). They were stalling-5, 10, 15 minutes after Sunday services were supposed to have started in the chapel at Bearcat. The civilian church services I had attended typically followed a tight schedule. If anything, unlike other military activities, the timing of religious services conducted by chaplains was even tighter. Finally, as the chaplain's face brightened, the reason for the delay became clear. Preceded by his junior officer flunky, General Westmoreland strode sharply into the back of the room, taking a seat in the last pew. After the services, the general shook hands with each of the departing soldiers, greeting them somewhat like a parent in the receiving line at a wedding, but even more like a politician at a campaign stop.

 

 

Copyright © 2007 by John Maberry