Don’t Shoot, I’m Short

5000

Don’t Shoot I’m Short

“Don’t judge me unless you have been tested as I have.”

When I was in basic training going to Vietnam was on my mind daily. I recall sitting down with a drill sergeant who had recently returned from a tour in Southeast Asia. I asked him as many questions as he could stand and he said, “When I was young I watched my life unfold, I thought I could do anything, be anything, but now I know I am nothing and will never be able to be anything. I’ll be living with this war for the rest of my life. In college, I thought the party would never end. But this war taught me differently. Many of my friends are in the cold hard ground. Countless times I heard people say that “war is hell,” But I didn’t know what hell really was until I went to Vietnam and if I was given a choice of returning or going to hell, I would gladly go to hell.”

It was February 14, 1968, Valentine’s Day, about one month before the egregious My Lai massacre. Guys were writing home to their girlfriends telling them they loved them and missed them. I didn’t have a girl so I was just sitting around enjoying the beautiful day. One month earlier, we experienced the best the North Vietnamese could throw at us, the TET Offensive and we kicked their ass, killing millions of the little gooks as they swarmed like locust through the rice paddies and villages of South Vietnam and down into Saigon before we sent ‘em home packing.
We were on the Dong Nai River, outside Bien Hoa, about 30 km northeast of Saigon. The sun was shining and it was a pleasant day. I was short, under five days, and we just received a couple of FNG’s, fucking new guys, as replacements in our unit and our company commander, Captain Smedley, was bringing them up to snuff and letting them know what to expect.
When you first arrive in a new country you are aware of the sights, smells and, sounds of a different culture. You are lost and you are nervous, aw hell, you are scared.
“Men, Smedley began,”memories can’t be bought. You have to live them and I can damn sure guarantee you are going to be living them the next 365 days. I don’t want you to be smug about your mortality until you have had it tested, do you hear me? This war you boys are playing in is like no war before it. It’s a war without front lines. We fight the enemy in their homes, in the jungle, and in the villages, A lot of these villagers harbor guerrilla fighters, the VC, Viet Cong. If you can’t tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys, you have to weed it out. If you can’t, shoot ‘em all and let God sort it out, otherwise, you ain’t making it home to that sweet little girlfriend of yours. Unless you are willing to be as unreasonable and as brutal as them, do not engage them because they will win. At night the Gooks plant mines and booby traps and during the day they plant rice. There are no innocents in this war. Only, as they say, the quick and the dead. Don’t be the dead.
These people eat different foods and smell different,” he continued. “If you want to kill them, you have to smell like them, or, like a wild animal, they will smell you and kill you. So, send your Old Spice home for your girlfriend’s new boyfriend. He’ll thank you and you may just live to see another day, and that is what it’s all about.”
“This sounds like it’s going to be fun, Captain,” a turtle, one of the new guys in the back yelled out.
“You know it will. Get ready for tomorrow as we are going to search and destroy! We will be out the door by 0530 hours.”
The next morning the bird was on time and soon we were loaded and on our way. As we banked away from our firebase, we could feel the ground drop below us and then in no time at all it rose back up and smacked us. The landing zone was about three clicks from the village, My Khe, we were going to engage. The wind from the blades of the Huey bent the tall elephant grass, exposing our LZ. Off to the left of the LZ, we noticed some civilians walking along the road about 15 meters away. We knew the area we landed in was filled with VC, even if we couldn’t see them, we could feel them. They were all around us, most likely hiding in tunnels underground.
We confronted the civilians and checked their ID’s and then everything opened up. All hell broke loose as they hit us with everything they had, AK-47’s and RPG’s, rocket-propelled grenades. We found ourselves in a real cluster fuck. There was no cover to be taken, only grass. Those who were wounded or killed were hit within the first ten minutes of the ambush when we got out of the bird. All we could hear were people screaming “medic” and there was nothing we could do because the medic was behind us. He was dead. He got shot right away as we dropped from the bird.
We dropped and returned fire. Then the Cobras came in and fired a couple rockets on the enemy’s position, before opening up with M-60 machine gun fire and ’79’s. It wasn’t long before ol’ Smokey came around. Smokey’s a chopper used to cover withdrawal with thick white smoke. He made four passes, and then the gunships came by again, dropping CS, tear gas, on the enemy’s position.
We dropped back a couple of clicks and took cover behind a berm.We didn’t have gas masks with us so we had to dip a towel in water to keep from ingesting the gas. It didn’t matter, we ended up coughing and choking before the smoke cleared anyway.
When the bird returned we loaded up our wounded and dead and took a head count. We had lost half of our men and we were mad as hell as we approached My Khe Village.
To those fighting this war, there was only one meaningful reality and that was life and death. Everything else didn’t mean a thing.
We secured the village and began our mission to search and destroy and it wasn’t long before we were finding all kinds of VC shit under the hooches in the village. We found rice and various foodstuff, along with a cache of AK 47’s, RPG’s, and other weapons. Now all the My Khe villagers were suspect.
Vietnam taught us that there is no simple road between dark and light. Everything was gray.
As we gathered up the weapons, a woman approached us from the village. She was wearing a simple black ao dai, a cotton dress, and non lai, a conical straw hat. She smiled, exposing her teeth, blackened from years of chewing on betel leaves.
“Chan lai, halt,” Cpl. Smethers yelled.
She kept coming and smiling and nodding her head up and down.
“Chan lai, chan lai” Smethers repeated, continuing to step back.
“She knows what you are saying, Smethers,” Sergeant Mason said, firing a quick burst of four shots in the air.
She kept smiling and walking and nodding her head.
The villagers were caught in the middle, between the VC and us. If they turned in the Viet Cong, they would return and burn their village and, more than likely, kill them all. If they didn’t talk to us, they were considered collaborators with the enemy and we would burn their village and maybe kill them all as well. They were considered collateral damage in this war. We didn’t fight for terrain to control it, we just fought to kill the enemy.
Mason yelled “Chan lai,” once again, but she kept coming, so he stepped forward and grabbed the woman’s upper arm tightly and crushed his hip against her pubic bone and blocked her free arm with his elbow. He cupped her small breast and squeezed. It was painful and she cried out, dropping the grenade concealed under her left armpit.
Mason picked it up and threw it into her hooch. It exploded, throwing rice bowls and cooking pots and various pieces of clothing out the front door.
The woman turned and ran. Mason lifted his M16 and fired, hitting her three times in the back.
“VC,” Mason yelled. “Move ‘em out and then burn this shit hole down!”
Later we sat quietly in the tall elephant grass in our LZ, sweating and waiting for the bird to come and pick us up. Nobody spoke as we watched the smoke from the former village of My Khe, lazily drift into the sky. We found seventy-five AK-47’s stashed away along with twelve RPG’s and numerous handguns. We were able to add a little to our colonel’s body count, with six enemy KIA’s, killed in action, including the woman with the hand grenade, helping him in his quest to get his first star. We lost five of our friends and had six seriously wounded. Once again, the brass was the only winner here.
Our entire squad felt like we were lost; like there was no good in us. What we did makes life difficult to bear and as my drill sergeant told me all those many months before, “I’ll be living with this war for the rest of my life.”
Tomorrow, four days and a wake-up. I hope I make it.

Vietnam War Statistics:

“Bomb them back to the stone age.” — U.S. General Curtis LeMay during the Vietnam War

The amount of ammunition fired per soldier was 26 times greater in Vietnam than during World War II. By the end of the conflict, America had unleashed the equivalent of 640 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs on Vietnam.
US aircraft carried out bombing campaigns in South and North Vietnam that over time exceeded the tonnage dropped by all nations in all theaters in World War II. By 1968, the United States had more than 500,000 troops in South Vietnam fighting a variety of wars in different regions.
The Vietnam War was like no war before it. It was a war without front lines. We fought the enemy in their homeland, in the jungle. Many villages, willingly or under duress, harbored guerrilla fighters, the Viet Cong, or VC. To the GIs, civilians were often indistinguishable from guerrillas and thought to be in league with them. In a guerrilla war like Vietnam, the distinction between warrior and civilian was often blurred.
And then there was the My Lai massacre.

And to show you what our military had to endure from our government on the home front, after 1965, one top official with no apparent sense of paradox described what the United States undertook as an “all-out limited war” in Vietnam.

As Tom Clancy put it; “What the government is good at is collecting taxes, taking away your freedoms and killing people. It’s not good at much else”

Texas Is Cattle Country

 

From the second book in the Esben Hjerstedt western trilogy.

A flat piece of rawhide covered the soles of his feet, protecting them from sharp stones and cactus. He had a narrow band of tanned doeskin that kept his long blond hair from falling into his face. The only other clothing he wore was a G-string. They stole everything of his they could find down to his boots and last pair of pants.
He reached in his rawhide bag and pulled out what remained of the corn and dried meat he had been carrying the past few days. He drank some water from a bottle made from the large intestine of a horse. The only weapon he had was a knife that he had secured in his G-string. He had been walking for days.
Nothing bothered him. When he was in dangerous situations he had nerves of steel which were manifested in the many battles he had participated in while scouting for General Crook and the U.S. Army.
He noted a volume of dust moving at a slow rate in the distance; it wasn’t much and he figured it must be a wagon drawn by two mules. Definitely not ox-drawn. Oxen do not lift their feet as high as horses and mules and they create more dust.
He removed his glass and put it to his eye. He could see two men sitting on the box of the wagon. By the time the shot reached his ears, the driver had crumpled and fallen forward. His companion reached out to catch him when an arrow struck him in the shoulder and he was knocked to the ground and slipped softly beneath the left rear wheel of the wagon. The mules came to a stop.
Soon the wagon was surrounded by twenty warriors, Apaches, faces painted, led by none other than Geronimo.
The Apaches circled the motionless wagon, whooping and firing arrows into the sides of the wagon and the slumped over body of the driver.
Two warriors dismounted and started to unhitch the mules when one of the mules bolted. They shot the remaining mule and began to skin it.
The rest of the warriors surrounded the injured man who was beneath the wheel of the wagon. They dragged him out and two warriors held the wounded man to the ground and another cut the soles of his feet off and made him walk around the wagon for sport before one of the warriors grabbed the front of his scalp and cut it off and shot him. The warrior held the scalp up in the air and started whooping and dancing around while the remaining members of the war party began to rummage through the goods in the back of the wagon before setting it on fire.
He cut off a piece of the dry meat and slowly chewed it while he watched the carnage unfold below him before he stood.
“I guess I’ll see if I can catch that mule.”

Horse Racing: No Transparency, No Oversight

 

Yesterday, January 29th, 2017, marked the tenth anniversary of the death of the great racehorse, Barbaro which, once again, brought to light, the inhumane treatment of thoroughbred horses by the racing industry.
This industry has a long dark history that is really sad. From Barbaro shattering his leg at the start of the Preakness to the planned destruction of Alydar by his owner and his attorney to collect insurance money, to Eight Belles, a filly that had compound fractures in both front legs after running second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby – and there are numerous others.
According to the Equine Injury Database in 2008, two Thoroughbred racehorses die every day in North America, and this is just the ones that are reported. It is not required to report when you euthanize one of your racehorses.
There are numerous ways the industry can cut down on the number of horses put down but they don’t implement any of them.
Theories abound as to why there are so many injuries to these horses, the main one being they race these young horses at two years old before they are fully developed, but breeding practices, greed, both on the owner’s part and that of the veterinarians, wanting to keep the horse alive at any cost, and those damn break over shoes they put on the horses to keep the front feet from sliding when they hit the track surface so the feet “break over” faster, are major causes as well. This industry needs some oversight, that’s for sure.
Horse lovers can only hope it’s sooner than later.

 

 

Max Fly In Buenos Aires, Argentina

The phone rang.
“Rocco’s Pub.” It was Bubba, Rocco’s three hundred pound bouncer
“Hey, Bubba, is the Rocco Man there?”
“Just a moment. Rocco, it’s the Cheese Head. Can you talk?”
“Yeah, give me a moment. I’ll get to my office. Hang up the phone after I pick up.”
I could hear laughter and chatter in the background and then Rocco was on the line.
“Okay, I got it, Bubba, thanks.”
I heard the extension click as Bubba hung it up.
“Cheese Head, you still there?”
“Still here, whatcha got?”
“The connection’s good, like you are on the south side or something. Okay, I got this from Harry last night. The magazine rented you an apartment. It’s the one they told you about. The first-month rent has been paid and the key is where you would expect to find it. Inside you’ll find more detailed instructions.They want you to write an article on the Buenos Aires Cowboy Fair, La Feria De Mataderos. It’s a weekly fair with folk dancing, handicrafts, and food, as well as gaucho demonstrations.”
“I’ve heard of it.”
“Do they do the polka down there?”
“Don’t think so. At least I haven’t seen it yet, but there are a bunch of Krauts walking around. Anything else?”
“That’s it.”
“Thanks, Rocco, I’ll be in touch.”
It was a studio apartment in the Puerto Madero district where rusting ships and decaying warehouses littered the area. I walked in and cleared off space on a bookshelf and set down my bottle of brandy. Now I was moved in. I found my instructions. They were from my handler.
He said to go to La Capilla, a boliches, a nightclub, in downtown Buenas Aires. It had been dry-cleaned and I would meet a deep cover agent, an agent of influence, a raven who had been working Buenas Aires the past three years. She had been briefed and was waiting for contact with me. She was in her late 30’s, about 5’ 4” and 110 pounds with black hair and brown eyes. Her codename was Snake. She knew my code name and had more information about the Nazis and what happened in Poltava, Ukraine.
When she walked in the La Capilla it was already after midnight and the bar was still crowded. She was wearing jeans that hugged her like they meant it and a crimson T-shirt stretched tight across her breasts. She had on an open leather jacket, and tennis shoes and wore a holstered and belted six-shooter, a .357. She walked to the bar, turned, and stood with her elbows on the counter and her ankles crossed. Her eyes were as cold as hung beef and her mouth pitched at an angle that made me squirm in my seat as if I had a diaper rash. She promised trouble. She was my contact and damn if I didn’t know her. Medusa, still tough as nails.
She ordered a drink and took a sip and then looked around. Our eyes locked on each other as I walked toward the bar. Her eyes lifted from mine. They were blank, clouded, lost somewhere in the long roll of her life.
“Hi, I’m a Cheese Head from America, the state of Wisconsin. Names Max, may I buy you a drink?”
“Sure, you can call me snake, I’m from Georgia.”
After the drinks arrived, she thanked me.
“You’re welcome,” I replied.
“I see you are still walking on the green side instead of lying under the brown side, Max,” Medusa said.
“I am. Guess I’ve been lucky. How long have you been in this racket?”
“A long time.”
“I was told you would have some information for me?”
She laid an index finger against my lips. “Shhh, quiet my love. Not here. If you want to hear my story, you must have patience. Are you hungry, Cheese Head? The fresh pasta, calamari, and Patagonian wines are particularly good, as are the desserts. Perhaps you could buy me dinner after we finish our drinks?”
“I’m always up for a late night snack,” I replied.
“I know you are,” she replied with a smile. “I see you are back to writing once again. The vaqueros down here are an interesting breed. Very tough and manly. I have enjoyed myself while here.”
“I can only imagine.”
“Yes, please, imagine. It gets el toro raging in you, Cheese Head. I like you best when el toro is loose and running free in your mind,” she smiled.
I looked around and noticed a fat man in the far corner of the bar, eating a sandwich and drinking a beer. Later he was still sitting there. His sandwich was gone but his beer was untouched. He was looking in our direction.
“You notice that fat man in the far corner?”
“Yes, he’s been watching me for awhile now. He hasn’t touched his beer.”
I got up and gestured for Medusa to get up.
“Let’s go over there,” I said. “A little more privacy.”
She picked up her purse and I led her around the corner to a booth in the back.
I was facing to the front of the bar so I could watch the movement of the fat man with the sandwich and beer. He didn’t appear.
“Look,” I said turning back to face her. “The man who has been following you may have killed one of my assets, Selena, so you have to be careful. I am trying to be patient but I need you to answer my questions about Poltava.”
“Everyone wants to eat but only a few are willing to hunt, Max.”
I knew what she meant. Medusa wasn’t afraid to hunt and she was damn good at it.
She reached into her bag and removed a brown manilla envelope and began to unwrap the string holding the flap closed. She removed a sheath of papers about one inch thick. The cover sheet was marked, “STRENG GEHIEM” in bold red letters.
“What’s that mean?”
“Top Secret.”
“Is the whole report in German? I can’t read German.”
“That’s okay. That’s why you have me.”
I looked at her smiling face.
“I thought I have you for other reasons.”
“That too,” she replied with a coy smile. “This report has been very difficult to get. Nobody in law enforcement gives anything away for free, pissing matches over pride and turf too often leaving everyone with nothing to show for it except wet shoes,” Medusa said with a frown. 
“I had to be very creative,” she smiled that knowing smile.
I nodded my head acknowledging her hidden meaning.
“Let’s finish our drinks and go to my apartment. I have a bottle and you can translate what you have there.”
“I thought you would never ask.”

It took us about five minutes to walk to my new apartment. We were pretty sure the man with the sandwich and beer didn’t see us sneak out but we retraced our steps, just in case.
We didn’t see any sign of him.
I opened the door and ushered Medusa in.
I poured a hook of brandy in each of our glasses and sat down next to Medusa on the well-worn couch. She took a solid drink and reached into her bag and took out her report and began to read.
“Have you heard of Konstantin Ivanenko?”
“No, I haven’t. Who is he?”
“A Russian ufologist.
“Ufologist?”
“Someone who studies UFOs. Ivanenko was an expert, Max.”
“An expert on UFO’s? Is that like an expert on looney tunes?”
“Before you cast aspersions, Max, listen to this report.
According to Ivanenko, the Nazis established a German base in the Muhlig-Hofmann Mountains in Antarctica. It was discovered in 1938 by German Captain Alfred Ritscher. The area was renamed Neuschwabenland, New Swabia and was known only as Station 211. The Richter expedition’s scientists used their Dornier seaplanes to explore the area and discovered ice-free lakes that were heated by underground volcanic fissures and they were able to land on them. It is believed that the expedition was to scout out a secret base of operations. and the facility is known only as Base 211.
Now, if you had been a Wehrmacht soldier at the railroad station in Poltava, the Ukraine, during the summer of 1942, you may have seen a very strange-looking military unit. The unit consisted of women, all of them blond and blue-eyed, between the ages of 17 and 24, tall and slender, with sensational figures.
“My favorite kind.”
“Every kind is your favorite kind, Max. Each woman wore sky-blue uniforms and Italian-style garrison caps with the insignia of the SS. You might have thought the SS had recruited a platoon of high-class call girls, but the truth was far stranger than that. You would have been looking at Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler’s latest brainstorm The Antarctic Settlement Women or ASF. The secret Fatherland of the new 1000 year Reich.
Ten thousand of the racially most pure Ukrainians were transported in 1942 by Martin Bormann to the German Antarctic Base 211, in the proportion of four Ukrainian women to one German man.
If true, this would mean that Himmler transferred 2,500 Waffen-SS soldiers, who had proven themselves in combat on the Russian front, to Station 211 in Antarctica. This may be the source of the myth of the Last SS Battalion.”
“Are you trying to tell me that Nazi’s are living under ice in Antarctica?”
“I’m trying to tell you it’s possible and that it’s possible that life actually existed there long before the Nazi’s got there. There is strong evidence that Antarctica was charted long ago by unknown people when temperatures were much warmer.
In 1947, Admiral Richard Byrd went to Antarctica on Operation Highjump. They said the reason for the operation was to test military hardware under extreme conditions, the suggestion that it was a combat operation aimed at dislodging Nazi troops from their secret Valhalla has always floated in the air.
But that wasn’t all: Vice-Admiral Byrd had apparently stumbled into a magnetic anomaly that messed up his navigational equipment and his radio. He radioed back reports of seeing a completely different, verdant landscape under his aircraft.
It is believed the observatory contains vast crystals which put forth a certain kind of magnetism, which is used as a guidance system so that large spaceships could land at that location.”
“Where did you get this information?”
She was smiling in the mirror.
“South America, Buenas Aires, in particular, is crawling with ex-Nazis, including Richard Gehlen and Otto Skorzeny, Hilter’s former bodyguard. These pigs still like young women and have a difficult time keeping from bragging. Más loco que una cabra con pollitos”, they are crazier than a goat with chicks. It isn’t hard getting information out of them.”
I stared at her.
She smiled, “It’s a job, Max, and I’m damn good at it. “Echar un polvo, I get paid to fuck,” she smiled again.
“What do you think? Would you like to visit Antarctica?”
“I don’t think so, but thanks for asking.”
“Ok, well, I’m tired.”
“If you would like to make an old timer happy one more time, I sure would like you to spend the night with me.”
“ Max, you are more a survivor than an expert when it comes to women. I planned on staying.”
I woke to an empty bed.
I started some coffee and filled a cup. I walked to the little refrigerator and pulled out a carton of milk and added a couple of fingers to the steaming hot liquid and sat down on the couch, and thought about the evening before. If Medusa stayed on my calendar, I didn’t think I would make it to the end of the week. She sure had some unusual information on the Nazis living in Antarctica and I was trying to see how this all tied into the tragedy that happened on November 22, 1963.
There was a soft rap on the door. I picked up my revolver and went to see who was there.
It was Medusa. I let her in.
“I just got word from your handler. Your shadow has been thrown in jail.”
“What? When?”
“Last night. We have to go.”
There was blood on her chin and some on her hands and a spattering of blood on her shirt.
“What happened to you?”
“That fat man from last night? He followed us. I had to take executive action.”
“He’s dead?”
“What do you think?”
I felt like the glue that was holding the world together, was finally letting go.

Super Warriors: Drugged Up GI’s

HOME:

I felt the liquid creep through my veins and the tension and fear leave my body. I was mellow.
I was trying to escape all the ears in the walls. Every night it was the ears, always the ears.
Yesterday silence was the only friend I had. I thought the bottom was the only place I’d been but I wasn’t there yet. No matter how hard I tried I was always behind.
Tommy got into a fist fight. He didn’t fare well. His right ear was almost severed and he re-broke his nose and dislocated his ring finger. I didn’t know if we would be able to remove his wedding band without cutting it off. I fixed him up the best I could using my wife’s sewing kit to sew on what was left of his ear.
Thanks, Doc,” he whispered.
That night I watched the needle take another man and silently I cried.

Chinese Premier Chou En-lai told the president of Egypt in 1965: “Some American troops are trying opium, and we are helping them. We are planting the best kinds of opium especially for American soldiers in Vietnam…Do you remember when the West imposed opium on us? They fought the war with opium. We are going to fight them with their own weapons.

VIETNAM:
I fell in love with a Saigon butterfly of the night, a whore named Kim Lien and she kept my plumbing clean. She looked like a bottle of cheap wine and worked on Tu Do Street and swore in English like a sailor. But she was mine and I was hers. We had a need and we filled it for each other.
She told me she was a hired wife for a CIA agent in Saigon. “He had a lot of money, money to burn. The CIA was accountable to no one in the United States government. Congress did not have a clue what money they had or how they spent it. That the CIA was its own government with its own set of rules. He didn’t care what happened to his money. He said he could always get more. The mother fucker kicked me out because I could not cook his stew properly. I was not a good housewife, he said.”
She told me she started working in tea houses when she was 10 and now she only worked for her father on his Flower Boat, a sampan, and for her brothers who pimped her out on dry land.
She informed me she was 19 but I don’t think she was a day over 16.
That night I held her hand for the first time in the bottom of her father’s sampan. I kissed her for the first time five minutes later and it was then that I gave her father 300 piasters so we could spend three hours together. I gave him another 100 piasters for some opium. We smoked it before she cleaned my pipes.
I told her I loved her in front of a bar on Tu Do Street with her brother standing on a nearby corner.
I proposed to her in front of the Meyerkord hotel, ranked #11 by the GIs, #10 being the worst and #11 being beyond the call of duty.
We were wed by a Buddhist monk on her father’s Flower Boat.
We spent our romantic honeymoon in a hooch I rented for 1200 piasters a month.
I delivered our first child in that hooch two months later. A boy. He didn’t look anything like me.
Lien told me, “In my village, they call our son bui doi (“dirt of life”). I am shamed.”
I held her close to my chest as she sobbed. We shared a joint and made love.
“Don’t worry, Lien everything is going to be all right. Let’s live life like there is no tomorrow because for us, there may not be. Let’s make love all afternoon. I don’t have to be back until this evening.” We shared some opium.
HOME:
I wept at night as I thought of her and my son and what fate had in store for them. I feared my bui doi boy more likely than not, was forced into prostitution along with his mother.
I still meet her in our secret meeting place and our small son joins us. In my mind, miracles can happen. I need miracles.

VIETNAM:
It was 1969, Saigon, South Viet Nam and it was raining, again. It rained every day since we got in country.
“Name’s Pappy Smith,” he said, holding a half-empty bottle of Tiger beer which he told us tasted better than the Viet Cong Bia Hoi.
He had skin like leather and welcomed us to Viet Nam, “You are in for a helluva fight. The average age of a ground pounder over here is 19 years old. The average age of a ground pounder when he is sent home in a body bag is 19 years old. I’m 35 and I have spent three tours in Nam and three years in Korea when I was younger than you are today. I went along with General MacArthur, chasing those fuckin’ slope heads right to the Yalu River before Mr. Truman and the rest of those fuckheads in Washington stopped us. If they woulda’ let us finish business back then, you boys wouldn’t be here today.”
He stopped his orientation long enough to finish off the rest of his Tiger beer.
“You may not believe this, but the sun does shine here once in a while. You boys just missed all the fun, the big Tet Offensive. Of course, it was a huge surprise to the folks back home, and the reporters claimed it was a victory for the NVA even though we won. We set the NVA back quite a bit killing millions of the little Gooks. But you would never know it reading the Washington Post and the rest of the American press. Obviously, to our newspapers, black is white.
“You are all fresh meat, our new Cherry Boys, and I’m your caped superhero and you always trust your caped superheroes, not one of them butter bars back there,” he said jabbing his thumb over his shoulder referring to the gold bars on the shoulders of the new second lieutenants that just arrived and were being processed in behind us.
“I’m telling you up front even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there. So always be doing something positive. Be alert it could mean your life and more importantly, mine.”
We knew now when he was around we never sat down.
“Okay, shitheads, let’s saddle up I’m going to show you how to ride the skids. You Cherries will sit in the middle and watch this time. After that, I don’t give a fuck where you sit. Just don’t sit in front of them Door Gunners.”
“Hey you,” Pappy said, pointing in my direction.
I turned around and looked at him and replied, “What, Sarge?”
“You our medic?”
“Yep,” I replied.
He looked at me a bit and finally said, “I don’t know what they told you in doc school back in the states, but here is the real story. You and me go out on the first unsecured insert and stay out and return with the last pickup. You and me are on call 24/7, 365 days a year until you either rotate out or you buy the six-by-three farm. I do it because I get the big bucks, you do it because you are the most important man here. We all need you. Now, di di mau, haul ass, and get your shit together.”
HOME:
I dreamed of Lien and our son again and woke up crying.
My wife asked me if I was okay. I wanted to tell her “Fuck no. What do you think? I’m fucking nuts. I’ll never be okay. But I told her, “Yes, everything is fine. I just had a spell.”
My wife takes me in her arms and rocks me. She’s a good woman and she loves me and I love her too. She thinks it’s PTSD that makes me cry. I don’t tell her. She wouldn’t understand.
“When do you see your grief counselor again?”
“Tuesday.”
“Do you think it is helping?”
“I think so,” I lied.
“That’s good. Do you want to go with me to pick the kids up from school?”
“I looked at her for a moment and said, “No, I think I’ll go see what Tommy is up to.”
“Please don’t do drugs again, please. The kids haven’t seen you straight in over a week. They are scared and so am I. Please, please don’t go.”
I grabbed her and pulled her close. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t lie to her, not anymore. I felt the warmth of her tears soaking my chest. I knew I was going to shoot up with Tommy. “I love you,” I said.
I felt like a shit when I left.
VIETNAM:
Our squad consisted of Bizo, Bug, Cotton Top, Dizzy, Doo Rag, me and Pappy Smith. We didn’t know each other’s real names and never did. To all of them, I was just Doc.
We were quiet as we contemplated what we were about to do and talked in hushed tones about our families and loved ones, and what we were going to do after our tour was over.
We packed our rucks, drew fresh ammo, cleaned our weapons and filled our Canteens and tied them on the back. For me, being the medic, I made sure my Aid Bag was packed and that I had enough dressings and meds for the next 10 days. Everyone was nervous about what was about to happen.
I passed out twelve Dexedrine to each man. We would be alert!
Then Pappy yelled, “Saddle Up and climb the hill to the pad the birds are on the way.”
And then we could hear them, that distinctive sound of the Huey’s as they approached the firebase; the chopping sound of their blades getting louder and louder the closer they got. It was at that moment as they were about to descend to pick us up that the adrenaline started to kick in. We got up, crouched over, and ran with our hundred pound rucks, weapons, and ammo toward the birds. We turned around as we got there and jumped on board. We sat with our legs hanging out of the bird; we were no longer Cherry Boys. We talked about the times we went out on recon and how we forced the “Cherries” to sit in the middle.
Once the Huey’s arrived and we were situated the bird ascended and the firebase receded as we banked and headed for our LZ.
As we approached the LZ we could see all the activity around it, the smoke and artillery fire and then the final dusting by the Cobra gunships flying down below us.
Then it was our turn, the 1st Bird, we made our way down. The Crew Chief and the Door Gunner unleashed their weapons spewing rounds on the LZ and perimeter.
We rode the skids in so we could get off faster and then we made our way to the perimeter to watch and wait until the last bird dropped its load.

HOME:
The needle goes in and I can feel it relieving the pain. I smile and look over at Tommy. Is he dead? I laugh. I don’t know why I laugh because I am sad.
I start to shake and my mind goes back to Nam. Then I silently cry.

VIETNAM:
While in Nam, Dizzy would shoot up and get high and we would ask him, “How’s the war going, Dizzy? He’d respond saying, ‘real smooth. Today we’ve got ourselves a real mellow war’.
When Dizzy was killed, we tried to convince ourselves that he was just high, in a higher place, that he had taken so much dope that he was up there floating in the clouds somewhere. To help us believe this, we all smoked what was left of Dizzy’s dope.

HOME:
I was catching bass and getting drunk the day I found out I was being sent to Viet Nam where I learned to hate my brother. Viet Nam robbed me of my liberty and I realized that I wasn’t going to live forever and then I realized that I was as free as I would ever be. You do what you do. It don’t mean nuthin’.
VIETNAM:
The bombs started falling pounding my brain and all I wanted to do was disappear.
I couldn’t see the bodies for the clouds of dust. It made me wish I was in Wisconsin drinking Mad Dog 20 20 not caring where I was or what I was doing. I was just a poor boy. Many times I walked away from trouble but I couldn’t walk away from this.
My dad told me to do what I could do and do it well. Shit, I don’t think this was on his list.
I was holding Pappy Smith’s body close to mine while pressing a field dressing against the gaping wound in his stomach, hoping his intestines would stay in. We were waiting for the last bird to drop its load and come back for us. This is why Pappy got the big bucks.
The bird finally arrived. It came with the dust and left with the wind and took the rest of our wounded and Pappy from us. This time Pappy didn’t make the last pickup. I was alone.
I tried to shut my eyes and get him out of my sight, but I couldn’t.
VIETNAM:
I stared down at the man I killed, more a boy, really. There was a star-shaped hole where his left eye was. His face was bloated. He hung upside down from a branch in the tree he used for his sniper position. Strips of skin were missing from his face; he was thin, like a woman with a concaved chest. His straight black hair was streaked with blood and hung toward the swampy ground below him. I felt nothing, absolutely nothing.
HOME:
I saw Kim Lien standing in the heavy mist ahead of me on the dock by her father’s Flower Boat.
“Lien, where are you going?” I sob.
“I’m going to find Tommy. Do you wish to come along?”
“Yes,” I cry.
She yells at me calling me pretty boy and to hurry. “Di di mau, dep trai.”
She beckons to me with her hand before turning and walking to the boat
I put the needle in my arm one last time and smile before calling to her, “Lien, please wait for me. I can’t make it alone.”
WAR:
You pay for your sins and this war was filled with more than enough sins on both sides.
The Vietnam War was many things and among them, it was a pharmacological war.
A 1969 investigation by Congress found that 15-20 percent of soldiers in Vietnam used heroin regularly and that over 40,000 soldiers returned from Nam as drug addicts.
The armed forces issued over 225 million tablets of stimulants to our troops, mostly Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine), an amphetamine derivative that is nearly twice as strong as the Benzedrine used in WWII.

Max Fly And The JFK Conspiracy

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The man in front of me was big with his hair clipped short on the side, military style. He was wearing a white trench coat and a brown hat, brown oxford shoes, white shirt, brown tie, and I assumed he had a government issued revolver on him somewhere.
He didn’t offer his hand and neither did I.
I was wearing my brown Dan Post cowboy boots, brown corduroy sports coat, Wisconsin Badger sweatshirt, Wrangler Jeans, and my silver belt buckle I won for being the runner-up all-around cowboy on the Texas Rodeo Circuit in 1937. I had my Colt .45 belly gun in its rig, situated snuggly under my left arm. I topped everything off with a white Stetson hat. I looked good.
I had a brandy manhattan in front of me and he had a Scotch and some change. He bought the drinks. It was his meeting.
“Thank you for agreeing to see me, Max. I realize you are a busy man.”
“That’s true but Harry said it was important. Something to do with national security?”
He ignored my question and asked one of his own.
“You and Lieutenant Harry Marshall pretty tight?”
“I guess. What’s this about?”
It was a Monday afternoon, 2:15 p.m. Central Standard Time, to be precise. We were sitting in the back of Rocco’s Pub, near the ladies room and close to the phone where I receive most of my calls. My friend and proprietor, Dan Ciorrocco, known as, The Rocco Man, was busy wiping down the bar and filling the cooler with beer, preparing for the evening crowd that would start arriving around 4:00 p.m. It was dark. I asked Rocco to keep the lights turned down and he agreed. This was a secretive meeting.
”Yes, well, I’m Colonel Jack Clarkston, I’m the Assistant Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.” He paused to let the importance of that set in, I guess. I stared at him.
He continued. “What do you know about the CIA, Max?”
I thought a moment and realized I didn’t know a great deal about the CIA, so I did what I usually do when I found myself lacking knowledge, I lied.
“Quite a bit actually. You are a bunch of weird spooks snooping around in everybody’s business trying to overthrow governments of small defenseless nations. How’s that’s for starters?”
He stared at me nodding his head.
“That’s fairly factual. Actually, we gather intelligence. We deal with two types of intelligence gathering. First, there is white intelligence which is information gathered from open sources such as newspapers and magazines and then there is covert intelligence gathering and this is what I am interested in hiring you for, to work directly for me outside the normal channels of the agency. I believe you are the perfect candidate.”
“Hire me? What for?”
Clarkston stared at me for an instant before pulling out a cigarette and lighting it. He blew smoke over his head and took a sip of his Scotch.
“Max, you have military and investigative experience. You don’t have a family. No siblings, your mother is dead and your father disappeared years ago, most likely died and buried in a pauper’s grave somewhere. Your history with women is shaky at best. You don’t have a wife or any kids, no attachments. You are familiar with the southwestern states as well as Mexico and South America and you cheat on your taxes. In other words, you are a perfect candidate for covert operations, this operation. We need someone outside the agency, someone we can trust. Are you interested?”
“And why should I do this?”
“Because you love your country and because we are asking you to do it. You don’t need any special talent or high intelligence. If intelligence, talent, and ability were hereditary, we would have to dig deeply into your family tree to find its source,” he said with a flicker of a grin, “and we don’t have the time to do that.”
I didn’t appreciate his failed attempt at humor.
“I don’t know. I’m making some pretty good money now. I would hate to give it up.”
“Max, we know what you are making and it isn’t what you have been reporting on your tax returns. We don’t care about that. We are willing to pay you twice as much as you brought in last year and we’ll lose the information we have on you so the Treasury Department will not get their hands on it. We don’t play games, Max.”
We looked at each other across the table.
I picked up my brandy and took a big swallow.
“Since you put it that way, I guess I’m your man.”
“Good, that’s good, Max.”
He took another drag on his cigarette and continued to look at me.
“We found over the years a man becomes a spy for different reasons, hatred, anger, political zeal, money, and sex and then some of them are coerced. You exhibit all these qualities. Hell Max, you voted for Senator Joseph McCarthy. In addition to theses qualities, you seem to have inner demons which could also help you be successful.This is an opportunity to do something special, something important for your country. Because of your tradecraft, and independent nature, we feel you would be a perfect fit for this job. There is no reverence in what you will do. I have to tell you, now that you are a part of this, there is no way out. You can’t fuck around with these people. They will break you and turn you into something awful.
“I’m just a private dick, Colonel. I’m not a Spook.”
“We’ll make you one and you will be one of the best. Hap Schultz will join you.
We want you guys to fly under the radar. When someone comes to us saying they have some information relating to this job, we want to send you and Hap, someone who cannot be traced back to us. You set up your network of friends you can trust. No more than ten people. We will train you and pay you well. Tomorrow morning at 8:00 a.m. you and Hap Schultz will meet me in Lieutenant Marshall’s office down at the Milwaukee Police Department’s 16th Precinct. Don’t be late. Hap is being briefed by another agent as we speak.
“Have you heard of a sleeper agent, Max?”
“No, I can’t say I have. What is a sleeper agent?
A Sleeper Agent is an inactive deep-cover agent. What we are about to tell you came from a sleeper agent. It is top secret and if any of this information leaks out, it could cause the death of many people and that will make me angry and you don’t want to make me angry, Max.
After you sign these forms I am going to tell you somethings and you cannot breathe a word to a soul. You are also going to meet some very powerful people who are going to pass along some top secret information to you and you are going to forget you ever met them. Do you understand?
I nodded my head. I figured I had already forgotten more than I know and forgetting more shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
“Good. Your cover will be that you are traveling and writing about life on the rodeo circuit throughout the southwestern United States, Mexico, and South America. We will assist you in getting jobs as a pickup rider at the different rodeo events. Those where we can’t help you, you will be on your own and will have to figure out how to maneuver around the event. We want you to mingle with the cowboys in the area as well as the people who are putting on the event. You will just be another rodeo junkie while you spook some really bad people.
“Since you are a writer and a former newspaper man your background fits.
“We will teach you a code and provide you with a code book.
“Dan Cirrocco will be your contact. You will leave your encrypted reports here at Rocco’s Pub with Dan. You will learn the code. Mr. Cirrocco will have no idea what the codes mean. He will hand them off to Homicide Detective Harry Marshall who in turn will get them to us.
“We will never leave you naked. We will have friends in the area at all times but you will never know who is covering you.
“Your code name will be Cheese Head.”
“Cheese Head? Where the fuck did you come up with that?”
“It doesn’t matter. All your correspondence will be signed Cheese Head. No exceptions. I’m going to leave now. A car will be out front in fifteen minutes to pick you up and take you to the Pfister Hotel. You will be meeting another Harry, Harry Truman.”
I stared at him in disbelief.
“President Harry Truman?”
“It’s the only one I’m aware of, the man who created the CIA, this Frankenstein I work for. This is big, Max, real big.
“Oh, and by the way, if asked, I was never here. We never talked.”

My First And Last Ride

 

 

bucking-broncI was about to enter my first competition in the Tri-Cities Rodeo Classic in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. The announcer introduced me to the crowd of nearly 90 fans who packed the Wood County Fair Arena that night.
“Next on his maiden ride, we have David Hesse, from Brookfield, Wisconsin. He’ll be riding #12, outta’ Wheatland, Wyoming, a bronc named Peaceful, but I can assure you, that little bronc is anything but peaceful.”
A shiver ran down my spine, was I really going to do this? I looked at Juan Guitterez, my coach and noticed he was smiling.
Nearly all the spectators were either standing or perched on the edge of their seats. Suddenly, the crowd grew eerily silent as they released my bronc into the chute, but it wasn’t the bronc I had drawn the night before. It was a big black stud named Black Smoke.
“Hey, what’s this? I drew number 12, the little buckskin bronc.”
“Yeah,” the handler said, “but he kicked out the side of his stall last night and cut up his leg. We had to pull him. This here fella is his replacement. I know he looks pretty mean, but he was rode last night by Ferrell Bannister who pretty much rode the buck outta him. You’ll be fine, pardner.”
“Joo sure joo want to do this, gringo?” Juan asked. “Joo might geet hurt, reel bad.”
“No, but I’ve come this far and can’t see myself backing out now,” I replied.
Juan spent the past six months teaching me how to ride saddle broncs and now I was ready to try it out.
“The first time eez alweez dee hardest, gringo.It geets“ better, I promeese,” Juan laughed.
I stared at him and couldn’t think of anything to say, so I just shook my head.
“Joo ain’t got nothing under joo hat but hair, gringo. You see how beegs that flathead eez? Heez goin’ to keel you, gringo. If joo” die, can I have joo saddle?”
I looked over at Juan as I climbed the chute and said, “Sure, it’s your’s Juan. I appreciate your vote of confidence. Coming from my instructor it gives me a positive feeling.”
“Ha, ha, joo crazy, gringo. Thanks for jour saddle.”
As I stood on the fence, I looked down at this big flathead horse wishing I had the little bronc I had drawn the night before.
I eased down into the saddle, holding the buck rein in my riding hand and bracing myself with the other hand on the chute. I put one foot in the stirrup that was easiest to get to. Then I gently moved Black Smoke over so I could get my other foot in the stirrup. He looked up at me as I eased my feet up to the front of his neck, and I could see the whites of his eyes and knew you could hurt your eyes trying to find any compassion in that face. I was careful not to touch him with my spurs as that might have caused him to rear over backward.
I didn’t make any noise or quick jerking motions, remembering what Juan had told me, “Don’t joo speek out loud joo sceer your horse in the chute.” So I kept my mouth shut, for once.
When my feet and riding hands were in position, I leaned back and down in the saddle and tucked my chin to my chest. If Black Smoke reared out, I could still keep my balance. Juan told me if I didn’t keep my chin tucked and the horse throws his head back, I would be thrown off balance, lose his swells, and miss spurring the horse on the way out of the chute. How well you spurred your mount was part of your overall score.
When I was finally sitting on Black Smoke, I looked down on his head knowing a horse had to follow his head; if he rears, his head gives you the clue first. If he ducks you’ll be able to determine it earlier than if you aren’t looking at his head.
Finally, I was ready and nodded at Juan to open the chute gate. The big ol’ horse was watching me,
Everyone thought I was gonna get bucked, and Black Smoke wouldn’t just buck you. If you didn’t get out of the arena, he’d camp onto you something fierce. Then he’d go wipe out the barrel. Both Juan and I were scared.
Then Juan flung the chute open. The ride started out well. Black Smoke bolted from the chute with four straight high kicks and I stuck like glue. Then the bronc lunged to the left and jerked the rope out of my hands. I hung on with the tail of the rope, shifting to the left with each whipping turn.
I was doing real good, raking his neck with my rowels; then right before the whistle blew, I found myself too far to the inside. He caught me off balance and turned me a flip and while still soaring through the air, I heard the eight-second whistle. My final thought before I landed all wadded up on my back, breaking my collar bone was, “You almost made it Hesse.”

The Great Blackout of ’63 – Game Cancelled

The Night The Lights Went Out In LaCrosse
The Night The Lights Went Out In LaCrosse

 

Before the Magic Flying Cannon of ’67, there was the Great Blackout of ’63, precipitated by some of the same characters of disorder involved in the Magic Flying Cannon Caper. This time, instead of transforming into Coyotes, they transformed into flying Ravens.
This was before the big flood of ’65, which they didn’t cause, but their shenanigans surrounding the recovery from that flood caused a couple of tricksters to take an unplanned and early leave of absence from their pursuit of a higher degree.
Who are these characters of disorder?
The Navaho call them mischief-makers, thieves, or tricksters. The Spirit Chief sends them to the land of dream visions to confuse people and they come in the form of a Coyote or a Raven.
The characters of disorder seem to have supernatural powers which help them perform their tricks. They live, die, come back, shape shift, perform all sorts of magic.
Reality is nothing more than an illusion.
The Raven was the first bird out of Noah’s ark. It just didn’t return. It didn’t feel the need.
The one-eyed Odin, the Norse Lord of War, Death, and Knowledge had two ravens, Huginn and Muninn. They flew around the world every day bringing back up-to-date information on Odin’s enemies.
The Ravens in question, these characters of disorder, lived in Hans Reuter Hall, a freshman dormitory at the University of Wisconsin – LaCrosse, named after a professor of physical education who was instrumental in the development and refinement of many teaching and coaching techniques. Hans was a master in the use of the Indian Club, the oldest hand apparatus used in rhythmical gymnastics. He also invented a back quiver for archers which could be used from a seated position, a pendulum timer that he used in his classes, and a moveable manikin, a model of the human body used in teaching anatomy. Reuter received multiple university and community awards, including the naming of this campus residence hall in his honor.
The dormitory is located next to the university football stadium and the characters of disorder had to walk past the gridiron every day on their way to classes, or bars. At night, the lights in the stadium would be on to illuminate extra-curricular activities, not only on the weekends but during the week. This bothered the characters of disorder as the lights lit up their room and interfered with their sleep. So, they decided to do something about it and these mischief-makers didn’t always play by the establishment’s rules. They decided it would be in the best interest of those living in the dormitory if they turned off the lights – for good!
Exceptional thieves never leave a trace of their existence, so, to that end, they would have to possess something to carry away their bounty, but what could accommodate everything they apperceived they would procure? They decided on a suitcase, a large suitcase!
The caper went down at sunset on a Thursday when no evening activity was planned at the stadium. The late afternoon sky was afire with contrasting yellow, orange, and red clouds that streaked along the west side of the stadium.
The characters of disorder were in place and would wait for the sun to set. They had staked out the surrounding area of the football stadium to ensure no one was there. Students who spent the evening downtown would wander in at all hours, but the thieves weren’t troubled by them as they would be more concerned about keeping their balance and watching where their feet were going than they would be in their surroundings.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, it was time. The characters of disorder ducked limbs and slipped between the trees on their way to their destination.They flowed as if they’d been born in the wild. Their faces were streaked with black and one called out in a cry similar to the wolf.
The first Raven carried the suitcase and dragged himself up and flew across the open parking lot and up to the main entrance of the stadium. He turned his ankle  upon landing and the pain was excruciating, but his survival instincts forced him to move out to another hiding place higher up the entranceway. Soon the remaining two characters of disorder were by his side and it wasn’t long before all three flew over the fence and onto the playing field. They skirted across the fifty-yard line to the visitor’s side of the stadium. That is the side they started on. Two tricksters picked the light tower they would attack first and flew to the top, reaching the box that contained what they wanted. They dropped the items on the ground where the third trickster gathered them up and placed them in the suitcase. They continued around the field until they disabled every light tower surrounding the football stadium. When they finished, they had everything securely packed in the suitcase. It was very heavy and they took turns carrying it as they headed out of the stadium back to their dormitory.
The three characters of disorder decided it was best to leave town that weekend. So, in order to document the activities, they planted a colleague at the Saturday night football game to observe what transpired.
Their comrade told the tricksters that as the visiting team’s fans, as well as the home team’s fans, were entering the stadium, total pandemonium broke out when the switches were turned on to light up the field and nothing happened.
Officials called both football coaches out of the locker room and onto the field, along with the referees, to inform them of the problem.
“What are we going to do?” asked the visiting team’s coach?”
“I’m not sure,” replied the head referee. “Isn’t there someone here who can fix the lights?”
The maintenance men were unable to determine the cause and they sure didn’t want to climb forty feet up each light tower to continue their investigation. That was an electrician’s job and there wasn’t one working on a Saturday night.
When they informed the coaches and referees that they were unable to locate the problem, the stadium announcer came on and enlightened the spectators of their only course of action, “Game called – due to darkness!”
The fans were in total confusion. How could this be? What happened?
The mischief makers had confused and flimflammed the fans and officials.
That Friday, before the game, the characters of disorder didn’t have a smooth departure as they fled the scene of their latest exploit. The generator went out in the car, a 1959 Ford, they used for their escape and they had to make an emergency stop in Sparta, Wisconsin. They found themselves short of money to pay the garage for a replacement generator, but, the tricksters, being the wily magicians that they were, struck a deal with the garage owner. They would leave one of their suitcases with him as collateral and when they returned that Sunday night, they would have the money and would swap it out for the suitcase at that time. The garage owner agreed.
That Sunday, when the mischief-makers returned, the garage owner remarked, “That suitcase sure is heavy, what do you have in it?”
Well, the mischief-makers couldn’t reveal that there were two hundred fuses taken from the university’s football stadium lights in LaCrosse, so, in staying in character of confusion and disorder, they told him it was filled with bones from the anatomy laboratory that they took home to analyze.

My Chet and Melvin Bernstein

 

I’ll never forget that day when Melvin Bernstein arrived in Cambodia. It was our first day over the fence. We were attacked by the NVA and the smell of death, mixed with cordite, napalm, crispy critters, and human waste was oppressive.

Before we arrived, we had been operating around the Song Be area in Vietnam and the Viet Cong rarely moved in groups larger than four or five soldiers. Once inside Cambodia, we were in for a surprise as they moved in groups anywhere from 20 to 100. The NVA were in the thousands.
It was the beginning of Monsoon season and it rained constantly with the humidity over 90% and the temperature at 96 degrees with a heat index of 130. We were dusting off a lot of guys due to heat exhaustion.
By that afternoon, the rains started to lift and the sun sparkled off the green vegetation surrounding Brown. It almost had the appearance of a well-kept golf course, almost.
Captain Smedley had ordered an RIF, Recon in force, at first light and we had finished field stripping our weapons. We were drenched in sweat from just walking across the firebase.
Sarge finished his meeting with the Captain and was starting to field strip his M16 and clips and had the pieces and springs spread out on his poncho and we were passing the time away by talking about a CBS News correspondent we met in Saigon a few weeks back who was walking around in his correspondent’s suit, what he considered his combat zone attire, trying to impress all the Red Cross girls and, of course, about going home.
“What’s it now, Sarge?” We didn’t have to say what “it” was, he knew what we meant. We all knew.
“Fifty-two and a wake-up.”
“What’s the first thing you are going to do when you get back to the world?”
He thought for a moment before replying, “I’m gonna fill a tub full of hot water, as hot as I can stand it, and dump a full bottle of my little sister’s lilac bubble bath into it and I am going to lie there smoking a cigar and sipping whiskey and count my toes.”
“You’re going to need someone to help you count all them toes, Sarge. Take me with you?” Robbie our RTO, Radio Operator, said.
“Hell, I got someone else in mind to help me do the counting, and it ain’t you, Robbie.”
“Hey, look at the boot. I do believe our turtle has arrived,” Walter Wilson, our 60 grunt said, pointing in the direction of a small GI covered in sweat, walking across the firebase wearing new fatigues and a steel pot. His M16 was pointed toward the ground and he was bent over from all the gear he was carrying on his back. “No way that cherry boy can hump a 60. Shit, no relief for me. Wish the Black Mamba was still here. That beast carried everything and never broke a sweat.”
The FNG, fucking new guy, stepped in front of Sarge with his head down and in a soft voice said, “I’m PFC Melvin Bernstein, sir. Captain Smedley told me to report to you.”
“What did you call me? Don’t you ever call me sir again, those ring knockers back there,” Sarge said, jabbing his thumb back toward the direction Bernstein just came from, “It’s them you call sir, not me. You call me Sarge, dick head, or whatever, but don’t call me sir. You understand, Private?”
“Yessir, I mean, Sarge,” he mumbled in a voice so soft we could hardly hear him.
“You a Heebee?” Wilson asked.
Melvin didn’t look up but nodded his head.

“Damn, I guess that makes us one big melting pot. We had us a real live Apache Indian and a couple of blacks, Swenson is a Swede, Perone is an eye-talian and Jablonski is a Polack and now we have us a Jew,” Wilson said.

“Shut up, Wilson, where are you from, Melvin?” Sarge asked.
“Maryland.”
“You go to college?”

“Yess.., Sarge, Georgetown.”
“Ewwwee, we got us another college man too, Sarge. What’s your degree in?”
“Political Science.”
“That’s good. It will help you survive your little vacation here.”
“Why don’t you get Melvin here settled in, Robbie?”
“ Come on, Melvin, I’ll show you around Palm Beach. Did you take your big orange CP pill?”
“Big orange CP pill? What’s that?”
“Birth control, Melvin. If Charlie catches you, he is going to get your cherry and you don’t want to end up pregnant. We got good docs here, but none of them has any experience delivering little baby sans.”
Berstein stared at Robbie, with his mouth open.
“It’s a malaria pill, Melvin.  Don’t listen to him,” Wilson told him. “Get your shit together and get back here most ricky-tick. You’re a boonie rat now, Melvin. You are going to earn your CIB, combat infantryman badge, but you better hide that if you ever get back to the states. Those assholes back home hate us almost as much as the slants hate us here.”
Robbie took Melvin around introducing him to all the squad members. When he got to Frankie Perone, Robbie warned, “He’s a double veteran. He went dinky dau so just keep your distance.”
“What do you mean, a double veteran going dinky dau?”
“FNG, you don’t know shit, do you? Double veteran is a crazy mother fucker. He killed a woman after he fucked her. Sarge was real pissed. She was a VC. Perone’s Dinky dau- crazy man, don’t you know? Stay away from him. This place is in his head, man. If he makes it out of here, his mind will stay here. Ain’t right in the head,” Robbie said, tapping his right temple.
We all had a lot of fun at Melvin’s expense. We did everything we could to disrupt his morning rituals. He began each day by sitting up and placing one hand under his chin and the other at the back of his head and he would twist his neck until it would make a popping sound. Next, he would pluck any nose hairs that he could see protruding from his nostrils and then he would squeeze out a strip of toothpaste exactly the diameter and length of his toothbrush and brush his teeth. After a few minutes of vigorous brushing and swishing of mouthwash, he would slowly and deliberately shave his face of all facial hair. He was the only member of our squad who did not sport a mustache.
“Come on, Melvin, Mr. Charles awaits us. Quit your fuckin’ around and let’s go!” Wilson yelled.
After all his preening, Melvin still looked like shit and we let him know it every day; every day that is until Sarge got it. Sarge was at 39 and a wake-up.
“No boonie hats, guys. Put on the steel pots and your frag vests.”
“Aw, come on Sarge, really? Those fuckin’ pots are heavy.”
“You heard me, Smedley’s orders and each of you pack five frags. Also,we’ll be wearing two bandoliers each with seven clips. Put only nineteen rounds per clip. I don’t want any jams. Make every fourth round a tracer. If you are upset about wearing your pots, you’ll love this. Everyone will be wearing a bandolier of 60 ammo. M16’s don’t fire through this bamboo and we are going to be in the middle of it. Wilson, do you think you can carry a thousand rounds for the 60? We’ll be shootin’ a lot of sticks before we can get at Charlie.”
“I got it, Sarge.”
“Swenson, you got the thumper, the M79 grenade launcher, and the extra barrel for the M60.”
Swenson wiped the sweat from his face and nodded his head. The sun wasn’t up yet and we were already sweating.
“Okay then. Kit Carson will join us today. Perone, you got a Thumper too and you take point with Kit and Melvin, you’ll be walking slack. Make sure we don’t leave no evidence, no footprints, no tall grass pushed over, no litter on the ground, no nothing, you got it?”
“Yes, Sarge.”
Be ready to move out at 0500 hours. That’s it get outta here and saddle up.”
“Fuckin’ A, Melvin, we are going to mix it up with Charlie again today. It looks like it’s beans and dicks for dinner again,” Robbie laughed.
At first light, we were already humpin’ it looking for signs of Charlie or the NVA. The temperature and humidity were over ninety degrees and it had been raining all night and all morning with no sign of a let-up. We were all covered with black leeches that seemed to be everywhere.
Our Kit Carson Scout was worth his weight in gold. He was a former VC guerilla who changed sides and was trained under the Chieu Hoi, open arms program. He was on a vendetta. He wanted revenge. He was a committed warrior. He was familiar with the terrain in Cambodia and understood VC tactics in setting ambushes and bobby traps. He also knew what VC bases and assembly areas looked like and where they might be
We crossed a red ball, what looked like a main road, and followed a blood trail to a spider hole and Sarge turned to our Kit Carson and said, “Didi mau,” – go quickly, and take the mighty mite and shoot some gas down that spider hole before you drop in.”
Our Kit went in. Soon we heard a burst of M16 fire and Kit emerged, dragging out a dead VC.
We booby-trapped the body with a couple of finger charges and left it lying in the middle of the trail for when his buddies came back for him. We moved on.
The jungle was very thick, a triple canopy; nothing compared to Vietnam. Sores and bamboo cuts were all over our bodies and feet and sweat continued to pour
into our eyes. We tried to stay off the trails but the thick bamboo kept forcing us back to the well-beaten paths.
“I can’t take much more of this,” Robbie said. “Please God, get me out of here alive.”
“Cradle your M16 and flip the safety off just in case,” Sarge commanded in a harsh whisper, as we slowly and deliberately moved forward. We hit a gully that ran next to a river and we continued to the top of a knoll. Then we all froze. Up ahead, just a few yards, we saw what looked like a small footbridge over a creek. There was a sign that looked like it had been written in blood. It read, “My Chet.”
“What does that mean, Sarge?” Melvin asked.
“GI’s Die.”
It wasn’t long before we made enemy contact and found ourselves in a cluster fuck, a real ballgame, and we really had to buckle for our dust.
Sarge pointed to sandal tracks that slid into a gully. The gully wasn’t that big about an eight-foot drop down a muddy trail. It ran about fifty feet to where it went back up a hill on the other side.The river was on our left. Robbie radioed a report back to Captain Smedley in the command post that we encountered a gully and there is a blue line (river) on our left with a boat load of fresh sandal tracks all over the gully”.
Frank Perone said we shouldn’t enter the gully, but Sarge didn’t listen to him. By the time we started to slide down into the muddy gully, Sarge was struggling in the mud to get up the other side. We noticed an enemy bunker across the river facing right at us. Frank Perone put up his hand to stop the squad from moving further. Robbie dropped back and called Captain Smedley to let him know we discovered an enemy bunker across the blue line pointing directly at us. Then two eight-round-bursts of automatic fire shattered the stillness. Everyone dove to the ground, into the mud. At the first sound of gunfire, you get that sick feeling that grabs you deep inside your stomach while your knees turn to butter and you feel yourself growing weak. Then you make a quick assessment of your body to see if you are hit.
Sarge struggled in the mud to get up the other side of the gully and was unable to survey the area. He turned to lend a hand to, Wilson who was humping our 60 and a thousand rounds of ammo up the hill behind him when an enemy soldier shot Sarge through the back of the head and hit Wilson in the butt. There was total silence. Not another shot was fired for several minutes. During that time we hoped the NVA were running away. They weren’t. They formed a banana shaped ambush, completely covering the gully pinning us down.

Before we could call in support fire, our Kit Carson grabbed Wilson and helped him get back up the other side of the gully where our medic began first aid. Wilson told us he saw eight or nine NVA soldiers on top of the other side of the gully and saw one of them shoot Sarge in the back of the head, He confirmed that Sarge was dead. Everyone was quiet. Sarge was a good friend to all of us. He looked out for us. He spoke of his younger sister often. Even though he appeared older, he was only 21 and barely needed to shave. A sick feeling enveloped everyone. The harsh reality that Sarge was gone hit us hard. We were numb.
It was then that Melvin did something that logic couldn’t define. One of the things you learn in battle is that the difference between a hero and a coward is an extremely thin line; just because someone was a hero once didn’t mean they would be again. Whatever decision they made, they made in a split second with no regard for their own welfare and often without thinking of the consequences. Melvin became a hero. He looked like John Wayne with his M-203A1 on fully automatic he fired a burst and ran to a log and came up behind it firing again. Then, without regard for his life, he threw down his own weapon and ran to Wilson’s machine gun that was left halfway up the hill. Melvin knew we needed an M-60 to get out of there. Sarge was dead and Melvin was going to retrieve our M-60 to get the rest of us back to safety. He didn’t make it. Just as Melvin went to grab the machine gun a North Vietnamese soldier reached down the hill grabbing the M-60 leaving Melvin weaponless. Melvin dove away from the hill and tried to find cover. There was none.
We looked up along the ridge line and realized that the NVA could have killed us whenever they wanted. They were on the edge of the gully above us and we had nothing to hide behind. Shooting up from the gully did not give us a decent shot at them. The few soldiers that we had on top of our side of the gully were still administering first aid to the wounded and Robbie’s radio was jammed.
So the NVA played with us. They started with Melvin. They shot off his trigger finger, then his middle finger on his right hand. Then they started picking away at the side of his face.They took his jaw off, from the ear to the bottom of the mouth.This was over the course of several hours. We thought Melvin was dead. If he wasn’t, he should have been. Melvin made us all proud that day.
Robbie finally got through on the radio and was pleading for an M-60 then for a react, a unit to come to our aid. He finally called in our coordinates so they could rain down holy hell on the NVA and us all in the form of mortar fire.

Finally, the snakes came, the Cobra Gunships, and they took care of business

We ended up with two walking wounded and one wasted, Sarge, and one possible expectant, Melvin, and one with a million-dollar wound, Wilson. He would be going home. We called for a dust off and soon popped some smoke to let the chopper know he was coming to a hot LZ.

The sound of the slick, a UH1 Huey, approaching brought a feeling of relief over what was left of our squad. We loaded our wounded and dead and headed back to Brown.
The next day Sarge would have been at thirty-eight and a wake-up, but he went home early, in a box and he took a part of us all with him.

The Big Black Mamba and The Cobra Gunship

 

220px-ah-1g_cobra_vietnam“Also I heard the voice of the Lord saying, who shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, here am I, send me.” Isaiah 6:8

They promised a ceasefire after Nixon agreed to stop bombing Hanoi and the next day Old Nixon got a taste of the little pastry chef, Ho Chi Minh’s, shit donut and got pissed. The North Vietnamese broke their word and launched a mini-Tet Offensive into South Vietnam and now we were going after them.

We crossed the Rach Cai-Bac River that separated Vietnam from Cambodia and set up a firebase FB. The air was full of dust from the hovering Chinooks and incoming Eagle flights. They started dropping more troops off at 010:00 hours and gave us our big orange pill for malaria as we continued setting up our firebase. By midday, they had dropped Charlie and Delta Companies.
We had just finished setting out our claymores and getting ready to settle in for the night when a dark shadow fell over me.
The largest and blackest man I ever saw dropped down beside me. He was blue-black. Strapped around his massive body were two ammo belts hooked together, each belt had one hundred rounds for the 60 he carried that looked like a small .22 caliber rifle in his massive hands.
“Hey honky, I’ll be bunkin’ with yo tonight.”
I looked down at his feet. “What size are those boots?”
“Fifteen and a half; I wear sixteen but they don’t have sixteens, so I took fifteen and a half. Said I could wear track sandals if I don’t like it.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Johnny Mack Thompson, that’s with a P, but you just call me Mamba, everybody does. Big Black Mamba, from Quitman, Georgia,” he said, flashing an enormous grin, exposing large white teeth.
“Well, Mamba, why don’t you go setup your Claymore and get your ass back here before it gets dark. We are in for a long night.”
Soon he returned and dropped back down beside me and immediately started talking. I was on the verge of learning more about the Big Black Mamba then I cared to know.
“Don’t yo love it here, man? This is my home. The jungle. Don’t make no difference to me, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Africa. This is where I am from and this is where I belong. This is my third tour. Yesterday they issued me a bayonet, man. Did you get one? It’s the first time they issued bayonets in Vietnam. Are they expectin’ some crazy ass shit, or what?”
“Yeah, I got a bayonet. Third tour? Damn man, are you crazy? I’m a short timer. I ETS in three months and no way I’m coming back to this hell hole.
Mamba let out a big laugh, shaking his gigantic head he said, “I ain’t crazy, but I sure am purty and my mamma is the ugliest woman you ever wanna see. I’m tellin’ ya. She beautiful on da’ inside but, yew-eee, she one ugly woman on da outside. That’s why I’m so pretty, ya know? Ugliness skips a generation. It’s a fact. You ever see Mohammad Ali’s momma? She ain’t pretty and Mohammad is so pretty he could be my brother. Shit’s the truth man. I’m 100% pure black and proud of it.
“Yessir, I was here before, playing in Chuck’s backyard. My first tour I volunteered for a couple of them Daniel Boone Missions. I was assigned to the 1st Cav’s LRRP., Long Range Recon Patrol. Only five of us, three of you honkies and two brothers. Man, we were tight. All five of us alone in the middle of all them Lao Dong; they dropped us off in the Fish Hook a couple of clicks off Pich Nil Pass. You wouldn’t believe some of the rabbit trails I been down. We lived on the sharp end of the spear, man. Yep, I know what it’s like to be on the sharp end of the spear. We lived on Nuouc Mam and rice every day for two weeks. If we was lucky, we got some fish. I hate that shit man. We killed a pig one day and we roasted it. Best damn BBQ I ever ate, for sure. We had to call in one of them Cobra Gunships to get us out, man. They had us surrounded. We were on the tip of that spear, honky, the tip of the spear.

Man, they sprayed the shit outta them gooks with them two mini guns and 79 launchers. A site to see, my man, a site to see. And fast? Just like a Cobra. Fttt… and then they gone. A hunnerd and seventy they say they go. Yew-ee. We loved to see that snake comin’.
“Let me tell you, honky, we are on the tip of that spear right now, and none of y’all know it yet. Yep, two missions with the 1st Cav’s LRRP and I can tell you from first-hand knowledge that we is in for some real shit, man. There are more NVA and Chuck in Cambodia than there are in Vietnam. I saw ‘em, man. Scared the shit outta us. Hell, you wouldn’t believe the truckloads of supplies and shit the NVA were just driving into Vietnam. That and on barges across the river? Shit,man, it was crazy I’m tellin’ ya. There were thousands of ‘em and we couldn’t do nuthin’ about it. Rules of fuckin’ engagement, man.
It’s too quiet out there, honky. I’m tellin’ ya, there are some Sappers nearby. I can feel it. It won’t be long and we is going to be in for some real shit. We need them Cobra’s man, send in the clowns is what I say, send in the fuckin’ clowns.
I hear Nixon says we can go in about nineteen miles and then we gotta stop. Can’t go no further. More rules of fuckin’ engagement, honky. What kinda shit fightin’ is that? You have some boy come in your backyard and give you some shit, you gonna bust his ass wherever he goes, even in his own backyard. You white boys don’t know how to fight, man. Nineteen miles, shit. That will take us just south of the Neak Luong. I been there before. Bunch of shit happenin’ there, man. I’m tellin’ y’all in for some real down home fun.”
“Well, I want to get this over. I’m ready to leave this jungle home to you, Big Mamba. You can have it.”
He laughed that big laugh. Everything about him was big. “You seen some shit, honky?”
“I was at LZ X-Ray, Ia Drang Valley. We chased the bastards right up to the fuckin’ Cambodian border and had to stop. Not pursuing them into Cambodia violated every principle of warfare. Rules of engagement? I agree, Mamba, who fights a fuckin’ war with a rule book? Not the Viet Cong, I can tell you that. Not the NVA. The bastards are gettin’ it this time. On that, you can bet the farm.”
“What farm, honky? I live in the city of Quitman. Nearest farm is ten miles away. Here they come, honky.”
“Okay, Big Mamba, let’s pray and spray.”
We put our weapons on full-automatic and opened fire. They wore the green and brown uniforms of the NVA and they came at us in wave after wave. I looked over at Mamba and the barrel of his M60 was white hot and the empty shells were piling up around his massive feet. As I was staring at all the brass, I saw his right foot explode and bits of flesh and blood flew over both of us. I looked up and saw the left side of his face was blown off and he was covered in blood. Mamba didn’t even let out a moan. All he said was, “Shit. Now where am I gonna find another fifteen and a half boot in fuckin’ Cambodia? Look at all these little gooks. They got little feet.”
I threw a grenade over the bunker. It landed about ten yards in front of us and we could feel the concussion as it exploded.
I told him to hold a compress to his foot, a medic, who was making his rounds, should be by soon. I slapped in another clip and resumed firing. When emptied I ejected the clip and inserted another one. I saw Mamba rise to his feet. He was quivering as he stood. He placed his left hand on the ground as he tried to gain his balance and move towards me. He took his right hand and smiled and flashed me a peace sign. All I could see through the red blood were his white teeth and the peace sign. He started talking, “My mamma makes socks. Them tube socks at the hosiery mill in Quitman. She gonna be mad at Big Mamba for losing his foot. Now I can’t wear them socks she makes for me. She gonna be mad, honky. She gonna be mad at Big Mamba.”