A Brief History of the Oliveri Family

December 7, 2010 at 12:06 am (Uncategorized)

I have very little recollection of my Oliveri ancestors. My grandmother Angela (Angelina) Carestia Oliveri passed away at age 47 ten years before I was born. Grandpa Eugenio (John) survived until 1951, when he died at age 69. I don’t recall us having much contact with my grandfather, even though he lived nearby on Long Island. I’ve heard that after Grandma passed away he married a woman named Marcelle without the blessings of his family. That could be the reason why there was a disconnect.

I do have one memory of my grandfather shortly before he passed on. I guess I was six or seven years old at the time. Grandpa was visiting Aunt Florence, Uncle Bill, and Cousin Natalie across the street on Summit Avenue, and my Dad brought me over to see him. I had a loose front tooth at the time, and Grandpa wanted to take a look at it. Then, much to my shock, he snapped it right out of my mouth! Of course, I immediately burst into tears. Not a very pleasant memory to be sure, but it’s the only one I have of him.

Both Grandma Angela and Grandpa Eugenio (see photos in library) are buried in St. Mary Star of the Sea Cemetery in Lawrence, alongside my sister Carol Ann, who died in 1948 at the age of just six months.

Several years ago, I became interested in genealogy and began researching our family heritage. I didn’t find much. Then, with the help of cousins Fran Mollo DeNicolo, Lisa Mollo, and some input from Aunt Mary Mollo, I began to come up with bits of information.

Grandma and Grandpa Oliveri originally came from the village of Manoppello in Chieti Province located in the Abruzzo region of central Italy near the Adriatic Sea. Manoppello is a town of 5600 people located on a hillside overlooking the Pescara River. It became part of Pescara Province in 1927. Its patron saints are Pancrazio, Rocco, and Nicola (more on this later).

Manoppello is renowned as the sanctuary of the “Volto Santo” (Holy Face), a veil with an image on it of a man alleged to be Jesus Christ. It is the only religious icon where the image is visible on both sides of the cloth, and is said to have a connection to the famed Shroud of Turin, which many consider to be the burial cloth of Jesus. Also known as the “Veil of Veronica”, the icon is believed to have been created when a woman named Veronica wiped Jesus’ face with the veil during his terrible journey to Calvary. Christ’s image is said to have remained on the cloth. Residents of the Pescara area have worshipped the Volto Santo for more than 400 years, although its authenticity has never been confirmed.

The current telephone records of Manoppello show that there are still seven OLIVIERI families living there, who are most likely our distant relatives. For some reason, Grandpa Eugenio changed the spelling of our name to OLIVERI after emigrating to America.

Eugenio Olivieri arrived in the United States on March 27th, 1907 aboard the S.S. Cretic from Naples. The records I found indicated that he had made a previous trip in 1903. According to the ship’s manifest, Grandpa was described as 23 years of age, 5 feet 3 inches in height, with brown hair and brown eyes. Apparently he traveled as a steerage passenger and had $6 on his person when he boarded the ship, leaving behind his wife Angela and infant son Italino (Uncle Tally). His destination was listed as Madison Street, Inwood, NY. There is another notation that is difficult to read, but appears to show that he had a brother, Nicola (named after one of the patron saints of Manoppello?) living in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. I have no further information on him.

Grandpa also had another brother, Michael Olivieri (he never changed the spelling of the family name), who lived in Cedarhurst, NY. Uncle Mike had five children, but I only know the names of Mary, Tootsie, Rosie and Michael. Unfortunately, Uncle Michael was killed in an accident just prior to Christmas coming home from work. I never knew any of his children when I was growing up, but met Mary later when she reconnected with my parents. She was a teacher at NYU, and passed away shortly after my parents died. But despite living in close proximity to one another, the families did not communicate. Evidently Uncle Mike disapproved of Grandpa Eugenio’s lifestyle and did not regard him as a good family man. I recall my Dad telling me that Grandpa at one time was a rumrunner between Brooklyn and Long Island. In one of the stories, he told of being in a car with his father on the Belt Parkway when the police started chasing them. The police opened fire, and Dad claimed to remember being pushed to the floor of the car as bullets whizzed past. Knowing Dad, he may have embellished this tale a bit, but the pieces do seem to fit the puzzle.

Grandma Angela arrived in New York City on June 11, 1909 as a steerage passenger aboard the S.S. Antonio Lopez sailing from Naples. She is listed on the manifest as Angela Carestia, and was 24 years old upon arrival. With her was her two and a half year-old son Italino (Uncle Tally), later to be known as Italo, or Jimmy. Their residence in Manoppello was listed as the home of Grandma’s father, Amadio Carestia, who escorted them to the ship. Angela is described in the ship’s manifest as four feet, 11 inches in height, with brown hair, blue eyes and a scar on her right temple. But if I remember correctly, I think Dad once told me that she had one blue eye and one green one. Her destination was listed as c/o Smeriglio at the corner of Mott Avenue and Madison Street in Inwood, NY.

After settling in Inwood, Grandma and Grandpa Oliveri had five more children, William, Dominick, Dinnio (who was a twin; the other child was stillborn), Augustine (my Dad) and Mary, the youngest and only girl. They all eventually married, Tally to Helen, William to Florence Suhusky, Dominick to Stella (Sally) Nastick, Dinnio to Lucille Teasdale, Augustine to Jennie Bevilacqua, and Mary to John Mollo.

Uncle Tally and Aunt Helen had several children. I only knew one, Jimmy, who lived on Long Island.

Uncle Bill and Aunt Florence were the parents of Bill Jr., who lived in upstate New York and just passed away recently, and Natalie Gordon, presently living in California.

Uncle Dominick and Aunt Stella (Sally) lived in Havre de Grace, MD, and had two children, Michael and Angelina. They later adopted a third, June Marie Oliveri Spangler, who now lives in Spout Spring, VA.

Uncle Dinnio and Aunt Lucille lived on Long Island and had two daughters, Jean McDonald and Joyce Palchynsky. Ironically, Uncle Din (my godfather) passed away in July of 2009 on my birthday.

Augustine (Augie) and Jennie, my parents, had five children: James (me), Carol Ann, Suzanne, Denise and Augie Jr.

The extended family seems to have grown quite large in recent years. We have countless cousins from the various unions listed above, many of whom, I’m ashamed to say, I’ve never met. Perhaps it’s time to think about some form of reunion where we can all become acquainted, or reacquainted as the case may be. We may all regret not having done so in the future. I’ll give that some thought and get back to you. In the meantime, if you have any information to be added to this history, I would welcome hearing from you.

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Mission Along the Border

October 16, 2021 at 12:07 am (Uncategorized)

Note: This story is an excerpt from my book, “The Frost Weeds”, published by Hellgate Press.

The afternoon following the bombing in Laos, I was busy in the bunker playing chef. I had taken some K-ration sausages and thrown them into a battered frying pan with a large can of tomato puree, then dumped in some spaghetti I had cooked earlier. The entire concoction was now bubbling softly atop our tiny gasoline stove. It looked like paint and smelled like motor oil. My first attempt at making a spaghetti dinner didn’t seem all that promising at the moment.

A commotion at the top of the steps caught my attention. I put down my spoon as Walsh stuck his head into the doorway. “Hey, Ollie!” he shouted. “You finished cooking that mess yet? We have a guest for dinner.” I had no idea who the hell he could be talking about.

Walsh clomped down the log steps followed by a stranger. “Say hello to ‘Mister’ Callison,” said the big Marine, purposely stressing the ‘Mister’.

Callison had short blond hair and pale, watery eyes. He was dressed in khaki civilian clothes that looked as though he had worn them for days. There was an unusual submachine gun slung across his shoulder. I recognized it as a Swedish “K”, and immediately realized who our visitor was. Only the CIA carried the Swedish “K”. But the most conspicuous feature of the man standing before me was a jagged scar extending from above his left eyebrow down across his cheek and under his chin.

I almost laughed. This was like something out of a grade “B” movie. What was next, a villain with a handlebar moustache and a trench coat? I guessed that Callison had somehow been involved with the previous evening’s bombing mission, but the look on Walsh’s face convinced me to say nothing.

The agent shook my hand, and then glanced across at the table. “Say,” he murmured, “is that spaghetti? It’s been a while since I had a hot meal.”

I grinned. “You must be hungry if you think this crap looks good. Pull up a chair. I’ve been waiting for someone with the nerve to try it.”

Walsh and I joined him, and as we ate we talked about the war and what was happening in the area around Lang Vei. Callison said nothing about his mission, and neither of us questioned him. He was the only one who took seconds of the spaghetti. After the meal, he thanked us profusely and prepared to leave, hoping to get back to Khe Sanh before dark. 

I was still curious about why Callison was there, but thought it better to mind my own business. After more than ten months in Vietnam, I had already seen too much. I suppose Callison’s mission could have had something to do with the Laotian captain we had seen at Khe Sanh. Perhaps the intelligence boys had gotten some interesting information out of him- information important enough to attract the attention of the CIA. I’m sure there was a common thread running from the Laotian to Callison to the bombing mission we had witnessed, but I had neither the inclination nor the wherewithal to learn more. To be frank, I was more interested in thinking about going home.

Shortly after Callison’s visit, Captain Davis sent his Green Berets on a brief patrol along the ill-defined boundary with Laos. In order to ensure their own security, the Special Forces troopers needed to know what was going on across the border. Davis assigned the job to Lieutenant Abernathy and one of his strike force companies.

Captain Davis also solicited ARVN participation. Dai Uy Dinh, the camp commander, asked permission from his superiors to support the mission. They authorized him to transport a 105 howitzer to the border, but not to cross into Laos. Abernathy’s men stepped off just before dusk. The ARVN troops, accompanied by our advisory team, were scheduled to move out at first light.

A high, dark overcast and an intermittent drizzle ushered in the dawn. Dai Uy Dinh’s artillery unit, protected by a company of infantry, rolled out of Lang Vei in a small convoy, pulling the big howitzer behind them. We rode in the middle of the column with Walner at the wheel of our jeep. I sat in the back with the radio and Corporal Troung, our Vietnamese aide. It was only a couple of miles to the border, but by the time we got there the rain had stopped and the skies were considerably brighter. I had often heard that the weather was always better in Laos than on the Khe Sanh Plateau. Apparently there was some truth to that rumor.

We arrived at a cement milepost that marked the border. On one side, painted in large red letters was:  VIETNAM, DONG HA, 83km. An arrow pointed to the east. The other side indicated:  LAO, SAVANNAKHET, 245km, with another arrow pointing in the opposite direction. Our convoy halted just short of the marker and began deploying into a small open field.

I had been here before. There was a tiny ARVN listening post about one click (kilometer) east of the border on the Vietnamese side. Squads of infantry manned it on a rotating basis. The position was badly exposed and very vulnerable to attack, but the occupants could give early warning of any trouble coming down Highway 9 from Laos. It could be scary duty, but most of the time it was just boring and lonely. Very little traffic crossed the border at this point.

Two platoons of infantry fanned out to form a loose perimeter around the convoy. The gun crew quickly set to work manhandling the 105 into position, while another squad began uncrating ammunition. Before long, rows of heavy shells rested on wooden boxes within easy reach of the gunners.

I raised the jeep’s whip antenna and picked up the handset to make contact with the patrol. For this operation, my call sign was “Boat Crane”, while the Green Berets were “Red Lance”. If the patrol needed artillery support, Abernathy would contact me, and I in turn would relay the necessary information to the gun crew through an interpreter provided by Dai Uy Dinh. It was a cumbersome arrangement, but Lieutenant Abernathy felt more comfortable with an American on the radio. I squeezed my mike. “Red Lance, Red Lance… this is Boat Crane. How do you hear me? Over.”

The response was almost immediate. “Boat Crane, this is Red Lance. I hear you 5 by (loud and clear). How me? Over.” Judging by the strength of the signal, I guessed they were no more than a couple of kilometers away.  Considering how ill-defined the border was at this point, I thought they might even be INSIDE Laos.

“Roger, Red Lance.  I hear you the same. Be advised that we are now setting up. Over.”

“This is Red Lance. Request you call again when ‘Long Tom’ is ready. We may want some markers. Over.”

“That’s affirmative, Red Lance. Boat Crane standing by. Out.”

I put the handset down and walked over to where Walsh, Walner, Kiesel and Troung were watching the gun crew prepare the howitzer. I told them what Abernathy wanted. Walsh nodded and turned back to the 105.

An ARVN crewman had removed the breech-block from the gun, and was sighting it in by aiming through the barrel at a tree on the distant hillside. A second soldier peered through a device resembling a periscope that was attached to the top of the weapon’s armor shield. When the images coincided, they replaced the breech-block. Other soldiers were busy imbedding the twin spade-like braces on the rear of the carriage into the heavy clay earth. The entire procedure took almost half an hour before the artillery lieutenant signaled that they were ready.

I strode back to the jeep accompanied by the interpreter, and called Abernathy again.  “Red Lance, this is Boat Crane. ‘Long Tom’ is ready. What’s your pleasure? Over.”

There was a brief delay before Abernathy broke squelch. “Roger, Boat Crane. Give us three ‘Willy-Peters’ (white phosphorous) at coordinates Yankee Delta three-six-niner, seven-eight-two. Let me know as each round is out. Over.”

“Roger, Red Lance. Three ‘Willy-Peters’ on the way. Stand by.”

I turned to watch as the interpreter shouted instructions to the gun crew, reading the coordinates from notes he had scrawled in a small memo book. Two computers- soldiers trained to calculate the information needed to aim the gun- worked feverishly beside the tube, then called out their numbers to the firing crew. One man slid a shell into the breech while loaders stood by with two more rounds. Another soldier adjusted the elevation and direction. When all this was done, the lieutenant raised his arm and then yanked it sharply downward. “Ban!”

The howitzer recoiled violently as the shell rocketed out of the barrel. I could actually see the round silhouetted against the slate gray overcast as it soared skyward. I clicked the handset. “Red Lance, this is Boat Crane. Number one fired. Over.”

I turned to watch the 105. The crew inserted another shell into the breech. The big gun bucked. I shouted into the mike. “Two fired!”

“Roger,” replied Red Lance.

The gunners repeated the sequence. “Three fired!” I said. Red Lance rogered again. The howitzer crew stepped back momentarily and waited.

The sudden quiet seemed greatly magnified. I could hear a large insect humming in the distance. Then squelch broke again. “Boat Crane, we see them. Come right 300 and add 200. Over.”

“Roger. Stand by.”

The interpreter relayed the new instructions. The gun barked and I bellowed into the mike. “On its way!”

I imagined the round arcing toward the target. Contrary to popular belief, an incoming shell doesn’t arrive with a high-pitched and descending whistle as portrayed by Hollywood. Rather, I knew from experience that the sound is more like the rushing noise of an approaching freight train, gradually increasing in volume as it draws closer. It’s not a pleasant thing to hear, I can tell you, particularly if you’re on the receiving end.

After another short pause, Abernathy came back on the air. “Boat Crane, that one was right on. Please stand by for further instructions. Out.”

I put down the handset and climbed into the front passenger seat to wait.

The afternoon dragged by at an agonizing snail’s pace. All was quiet except for the soft whooshing sound emanating from the Prick-10. I hadn’t heard from Abernathy

since we fired the last marker round several hours ago, but didn’t bother with a commo check. I knew he’d call if he needed us.

Several ARVN soldiers were building small fires to cook their mid-day rice. It was extremely humid, but thankfully, not very hot. The others had gone off somewhere with Dai Uy Dinh, so I sat alone in the jeep, bored to death. I struggled to stay alert, but I was feeling drowsy. My head began to droop.

A sudden, urgent whisper jolted me upright. “Boat Crane, this is Red Lance. We have movement on the trail. Please acknowledge by breaking squelch twice.”

Whatever Abernathy was looking at must have been close. He was speaking so softly that I could scarcely hear him. I snatched the mike and squeezed the speak bar twice. The insistent whisper resumed. “Roger. Stand by with Hotel Echo (High Explosive).”

I caught the interpreter’s eye and frantically waved him over. He paused just long enough to alert the gun crew, then came on the run. I quickly explained the situation. He shouted instructions to the members of the howitzer team, who bolted for their stations, leaving their rice pot boiling on the fire. Once there, they waited in tense anticipation for further orders.

A barely-audible murmur droned from the speaker. “We have enemy supply column in sight. Request pattern of Hotel Echo at coordinates Yankee Delta three-six-niner, seven-eight-zero at your command. Acknowledge by breaking squelch once, and twice when rounds are fired. Over.”

I squeezed the bar so hard that my hand hurt. I had scribbled the coordinates on a scrap of paper, and handed it to the interpreter, who dashed over to the gun crew. There was a flurry of activity around the 105 as the gunners prepared to fire at a real target.  When they were ready, the lieutenant reached up and yanked an imaginary chain.

The big gun belched three times in rapid succession, lofting a trio of whirring shells westward into Laos. My pulse hammered as I awaited a response. The seconds passed in excruciating slow motion before Abernathy replied. When he did, he was no longer whispering. “Come left 50 and fire for effect!”

The interpreter barked once more. The gun crew began to put out a nine shell concentration. I clicked the handset twice. After the third shot, the Green Beret lieutenant came back on the air. “You’re right on them, Boat Crane!” he roared in jubilation. “Pour it on!”

The gun crew continued to work in a controlled frenzy. After the ninth shell, the radio crackled again. “Cease fire and stand by!”

The ARVN gunners stood up and wiped the sweat from their faces. I spotted my fellow advisors running hell-bent for the jeep. Then the radio hissed again. “Great shooting, Boat Crane! We count six Kilo-India-Alpha (Killed in Action) on the trail, and the rest have scattered. Moving out to confirm.”

This time I responded vocally. “Roger, Red Lance. Good show!”

This was weird. It was almost like some Saturday football game, except we were cheering people getting killed instead of scoring touchdowns. Yet, I found it strangely exhilarating. I’m not proud to admit it, but that was just the reality of the situation at the time.

The interpreter relayed the news to the waiting ARVN, who erupted in a ragged cheer. We remained in place after Abernathy’s troops moved out in case they needed additional support. They didn’t. The surviving VC eluded the strike force, and there was no further contact. It was now late afternoon. Walsh and Dai Uy Dinh, the camp commander, held a brief conference after which the big Marine returned to the jeep.

“Dai Uy Dinh wants to keep the gun here tonight instead of doing this all over again in the morning. His troops will camp here and stand guard. We’re gonna stay at the listening post.”

I nodded. We packed the jeep as the veiled sun began to dip behind the mountains.  Walner drove the short distance to the tiny outpost and parked inside the single roll of barbed wire that surrounded the narrow compound.

The ARVN garrison had cleared out one of the crude bunkers for us. It was dingy and stank of stale urine. There were no cots. Troung busied himself in the bunker while I built a small fire near the jeep and heated some C-rations. As dusk fell, we sat around the fire on two logs and ate from the stubby green cans with plastic forks. Walsh glanced at me with a mischievous look in his eye. “Hey, Ollie,” he needled. “Your cooking still sucks!”

I glared at him. “So don’t eat it if you don’t like it,” I snarled.

Everyone chuckled, including Walsh. Back in Saigon, or even in Quang Tri, I would never have talked to an officer like that. But out here we were equals, within reason, of course. I liked that. In fact, we all did.

It was already dark by the time we finished the spartan meal. The overcast had thickened once again, effectively shutting out what little light the stars might have provided. I shuddered to think what it must be like for the squad of ARVN who had to stay out here alone night after night. In the deepening blackness, it would be too dangerous to use a lantern. Walsh ducked into the bunker and prepared to turn in. The roof was so low that he had to hunch over or risk cracking his skull on a crossbar. Walner and Troung soon followed him.

I waited until they were all inside, and then kicked dirt onto the fire. Settling into the front seat of the jeep, I reached over and switched on the Prick-10.  Red Lance’s frequency was quiet. I monitored the radio for a while, rehashing the events of the day.  Now and then I glanced down at the dying red coals glowing in the darkness. The jungle was still except for the occasional buzz of an insect, or an isolated shrill outburst from some goddamn communist bird. Tiring of this eventually, I shut down the radio and made my way into the bunker. Troung had left me a space in a corner. I stretched out on the floor, careful not to disturb the others. I unlaced my boots and yanked them off. As I settled back, I wondered what the hell the next day would bring.

It was a long and uncomfortable night. Every time I finally dozed off, something would scuttle about in the darkness and startle me to wakefulness. It gave me the creeps. I slept little, and was quite happy to see the first pale light of dawn seeping into the open bunker.  I reached across and nudged each of my companions. “Hey… wake up, you guys.” 

Snorts and grunts and a loud fart greeted my efforts. I reached down and shook out my boots. There were big ugly bugs in Vietnam- foot long centipedes, some scorpions. You never put your boots on in the morning without first turning them upside down in case an uninvited guest had taken up residence inside during the night. To say nothing of snakes.  I hated snakes. I smiled, recalling the time a colorful banded snake had slithered down the steps of our bunker, sending three heavily-armed advisors racing outside while Troung and another soldier cornered the reptile and killed it. That sucker probably ended up in somebody’s cooking pot. And Troung laughed about the incident for weeks, much to our annoyance.

We boiled some water and made C-ration coffee. When everyone was ready, we crammed into the jeep again and scooted back up Highway 9.

The ARVN emplacement was a beehive of activity as Dinh’s men prepared to break camp. They had heard that the Green Berets were bringing back the bodies of the VC killed by their artillery, and were anxious to see the results. They didn’t have long to wait.

Two hours after dawn, advance elements of the strike force appeared around a bend in the highway. The little soldiers, uniformly clad in camouflage fatigues, approached quickly with weapons at the ready. The main body was close behind. When they neared the ARVN perimeter, laughter, back-slapping and good-natured hooting broke out all along the line.

A squad of Abernathy’s troopers “chogeyed” in with the six dead VC and dumped them unceremoniously beside the road. Lieutenant Abernathy materialized out of the crowd wearing a green bandana on his head. He spotted Walsh and pointed proudly to the bodies. We walked over to examine the kill.

The Vietnamese gathered around hesitantly. I had a feeling that if someone had yelled “BOO!” they would have all run. The dead communists were heavily-caked with mud, but that didn’t mask the gruesome efficiency of the artillery. One victim had no legs below mid-thigh. Another had evidently been killed by concussion. Congealed blood radiating from his nose and ears had matted his thick dark hair. Flies were already swarming about the stiffened corpses.

I leaned over to look more closely at yet another body. There was a small black hole behind the man’s right ear, but no evidence of any bleeding. Someone had given this poor bastard the “coup de grace” after he was already dead. I shook my head with the grim realization, perhaps for the first time, that brutality wasn’t limited to just the other side.

The gathering around the VC bodies now began to beak up. Trucks soon arrived to transport the strike force and their trophies back to Khe Sanh. My companions and I drove on ahead to Lang Vei. As it turned out, that was to be our last mission to the Laotian border.

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A Shau

February 23, 2021 at 8:30 pm (Uncategorized)

   Note: This story is an excerpt from my book, The Frost Weeds, published by Hellgate Press.

   Kane was finally promoted to Staff Sergeant, Doug and I spotted him in the hotel dining room the morning after he received the orders granting him another stripe. It was an absurd sight. Chop was seated at a table by himself with a shit-eating grin on his face. He was staring lovingly down at his sleeve, where his new insignia had just been sewn on. Kane seemed oblivious to everything else around him as he sat gently caressing the long-awaited patch. He looked utterly ridiculous.

   I shook my head. “Do you believe this guy?”

   “He must have gone dinky-dau,” cackled Doug.

   We left with Chop still at the table admiring his new stripes.

   A new advisor was assigned to Ta Bat in mid-August, and Yniguez flew out to join him. Shortly afterward, now-Staff Sergeant Kane cornered me in the living room of the commo house.

   “Hey, Oliveri. Major Crittenden’s going out on an operation in the A Shau tomorrow. He asked for you and I said OK.”

   The bastard didn’t even smile. I guess he thought he was finally getting even with me for my practical jokes. Whenever a dirty or dangerous job came up, he was only too quick to assign it to me. I guess even back then my wise-ass nature often got me into trouble. I had been expecting to hear from Crittenden again, so this was no big surprise. And I knew from my experience at Nam Dong that the Green Berets usually lived quite comfortably. This might not be too bad.

   The next morning, I cleaned and oiled my weapons, then gathered my gear. At 1000 hours I slung my new carbine over one shoulder and my bag over the other. Doug drove me to the airfield.

   As we rolled onto the Nguyen Hoang Bridge, a Buddhist funeral procession approached from the opposite bank. Doug pulled over to let them pass. The mourners trudged slowly along, many of them carrying hand-lettered prayer signs. They marched to the halting rhythm of clashing cymbals.

   Several years later during the Tet Offensive, the VC would smuggle weapons into Hue concealed in the trappings of sham funeral processions. Now, however, the mourners passed peacefully on toward the cemetery while we watched curiously. When the span was finally clear Doug stepped on the gas and continued to Tay Loc Airfield.

   Crittenden was waiting on the fringe of the runway with a small group of ARVN soldiers. An empty Caribou loomed behind them with its tailgate down. Most of the Vietnamese troops had already been airlifted to A Shau. This was the final contingent. I said good-bye to Doug and walked over to join them. Catching Crittenden’s eye, I saluted smartly. “Good morning, Sir.”

   Crittenden was a veteran of the battle for “Pork Chop Hill” during the Korean conflict. he returned my salute with a smile. “Hello, Oliveri. Glad you could make it.”

   “Thanks, Major.” I glanced around for his driver. “Did Hiep already go on ahead, Sir?”

   Crittenden frowned. His response was terse and measured. “I guess you didn’t hear. Hiep was arrested. They found out he was a VC collaborator.”

   “You’re kidding!” I was thunderstruck.

   “No, I’m not. He’s in jail somewhere up north of here.”

   I couldn’t believe it. Here I had spent a week with the man and all the while he was a VC. I guess my instincts about the shooting incident at Phu Bai had been correct. I KNEW I hadn’t loaded the carbine that morning. Hiep must have done it. Maybe he had hoped to disrupt the operation with an “accidental” shooting, or perhaps even hit the jackpot by getting Crittenden shot. Jesus, it made sense!

   I sat silently during the short flight to A Shau, fighting back waves of paranoia. If I dug deeply enough, I could think of many seemingly innocent people who might reasonably be considered VC suspects. There was Charlie (wasn’t he aptly named?) the old cyclo driver who cruised the area near the advisors’ compound. He had often pedaled me across the bridge to the marketplace. It was sometimes said, perhaps in jest, that he was a VC sympathizer. And the little barber who cut my hair in the hotel lobby. He never uttered a word as he worked with his clicking scissors and keen-edged straight razor. Razor? Damn, I’d have to give that some more thought.

   I’d always found getting a haircut relaxing, so I usually visited the barber every week to ten days while I was in Hue. Maybe not any longer. I recalled a story I had heard about three VC who had been killed one night near Da Nang when ARVN soldiers snapped an ambush on them. One of the victims was the advisors’ barber. And Bui, the young Vietnamese college student Keller had befriended. He often came down to the house from nearby Hue University, and Ken would help him study English. Who knew what he was really up to? After all, we had confidential information in the commo house. I had never liked him anyway. And… and…

   The Caribou’s sudden descent interrupted my train of thought. I gazed across the aisle. Crittenden sat quietly studying me. The Major flashed me a fatherly smile and nodded his head gently. He understood. I felt a pang of affection for the wise old soldier. Without saying a word, he had persuaded me to forget about Hiep for the time being. There was far too much else to worry about at the moment.

   The plane touched down, rumbled briefly along the steel-matted landing strip, and coasted to a halt. We disembarked into the brilliant August sun.

   A Shau was a fairly large outpost. The triangular headquarters compound containing the Team A-113 Special Forces command post and the sway-backed ARVN HQ building lay on the north side of the installation, its apex pointed in the general direction of Ta Bat. Fifty yards south of the base of the triangle was another long, rectangular compound. Eight large barracks and half a dozen smaller structures stood within its confines. The Vietnamese strike force called this home. A narrow dirt walkway connected the two emplacements. The camp runway jutted off at a slight angle below the ARVN compound.

   The mountains seemed closer and higher than they had at Ta Bat. Dark green jungle grew all the way up to and over even the tallest of the peaks. Looking west from the camp gave one the illusion of standing at the bottom of a huge, emerald-colored pottery bowl with broken and jagged edges.

   Crittenden and I grabbed our gear and headed up the path toward the command post. A tall American officer with dark crew-cut hair was striding toward us. He was hatless and wore a pair of aviator sunglasses. He grasped Crittenden’s shoulders with both hands. “Forrest,” he said with sincere warmth. “How the hell are you?”

   Crittenden smiled. “Just fine, Harry. It’s been a long time.” He turned toward me. “Oliveri, say hello to an old buddy of mine, Major Harry Ching.” I offered my hand. Crittenden later told me that he and Ching had served together in Korea.

   “Good to have you with us,” said Ching. “We want you both to stay in the team house while you’re here. We’ve got a hell of a cook.

   Crittenden beamed. “That’s damn considerate of you, Harry. We appreciate it.”

   We stepped inside the team building. The interior was relatively dim. I blinked my eyes until my vision adjusted to the light. A stocky master sergeant stood to our right with one foot resting on a cane chair. Several other Americans sat around a metal table. I recognized Sergeant Moore, a tall black man with red hair who had passed through Hue on several occasions while I was on radio watch at Tay Loc. The group eyed us curiously as we entered the room.

   Ching introduced us to MSGT Standing, the team’s intelligence specialist. While Crittenden and Ching chatted, Standing took me aside. “Listen, Oliveri. Patience and Cotter are out in the field. You and the Major can use their bunks while they’re away.”

   After I thanked him, Standing led me through a doorway strung with thin strips of white plastic fringe. He was like a concerned mother hen as he stepped into a cubicle and pointed out a metal-framed bed with Sgt. Patience’s name on it. I stowed my bag and weapon beside it.

   A Shau was beginning to look pretty good to me. The Green Berets even had their own generator to provide electricity, as well as a large refrigerator to make ice and keep their drinks cold. Anyone was welcome to help himself to a beer or soda as long as he dropped a dime into a bucket atop the cooler. The “B” Team back at Da Nang kept the stock replenished regularly.

   Crittenden sent me over to the strike force compound to set up our radio inside one of the barracks buildings. Someone had already erected poles and strung the long-wire antenna. All I had to do was to plug in the correct number of connectors. I tuned the radio to net frequency and called in. There were no messages. I shut down the generator and then looked around. ARVN soldiers were laying down sleeping mats and blankets on the dirt floor. Several others were building fires outside to cook rice. We had brought along two companies, but there was still plenty of room inside. No one was bunking down near my radio, and I hoped that meant it would remain undisturbed. I made a mental note not to leave the code sheets here.

   That evening Crittenden and I ate dinner with the team. The food was excellent. Special Forces units always seemed to come up with outstanding cooks. The Green Berets liked to portray themselves as some sort of super soldiers, and doubtless felt they deserved the best. I secretly questioned whether they were all that good, but they certainly knew how to make outpost duty quite comfortable.

   After the meal, Sergeant Moore set out to fire a harassment and interdiction (H&I) mission from the 81mm mortar pit just outside the team building. Moore’s standard procedure was to launch H&I at random almost every night just before dusk. The team had carefully calculated the distances to some strategic terrain features. Any attack against the outpost would most likely originate from these points. By firing the big 81 at these positions near sundown, Moore and his crew hoped to disrupt any potential assault by catching the enemy troops as they massed.

   I wandered over to the pit to watch the mission. Moore struggled with the heavy steel tube, grunting audibly as he manhandled it into position. When he was satisfied with the placement of the mortar, he crouched down and sighted the weapon using the pre-positioned aiming stakes embedded in the perimeter of the pit. Moore studied some numbers written in a small brown notebook and adjusted the elevation knob to correspond with them. The ARVN mortar crew stood nearby, armed with several deadly-looking shells. When Moore was ready to fire, he stood straight up over the mouth of the tube. The crew passed three of the steel-finned projectiles to him, and Moore slid them down the barrel in rapid succession.

   POWK! POWK! POWK! The mortar spewed streams of yellow and white sparks up toward a darkening sky. The shells soared along a parabolic arc to the target, a grassy clearing about a thousand meters, or one kilometer, west of camp. If the VC were planning an attack, this would be a logical jumping-off point.

   WHOOM! WHOOM! WHOOM! The roar of the impacting shells reverberated down the valley. Moore finished resetting his sights even before the echoes died away. This time the target was a protruding tree line just over fifteen hundred meters to the northeast. The enemy force would almost certainly place its heavy weapons in there. Moore dropped three more rounds into the gaping mortar. Once again, the shells arched skyward.

   By now the twilight had deepened considerably. When the rounds landed, the flashes were clearly visible. Three more explosions boomed ominously across the valley floor. I winced, imagining the shards of hot shrapnel ripping through the vegetation. Those blasts would probably have flattened anyone moving inside the tree line.

   That was the end of the mission. Had there been enemy troops in those areas, they would surely have dispersed by now. If so, the H&I fire would have served its purpose. Unfortunately, we would probably never know for certain.

   Twilight descended quickly upon the camp. To the west, the setting sun sank behind the surrounding peaks, briefly bathing them in liquid gold. In contrast with the deep purple shadows at the base of the mountains, the effect was startling. I paused to admire the sight. Vietnam is really a gorgeous country, I thought. Too bad death doesn’t appreciate beauty. A slight smile curled my lips. Doug would call me a half-assed philosopher for thinking that way. I pulled myself away from this surrealistic scene and moved off to the team house.

   At A Shau, every American shared guard duty. During a two-hour shift, we were responsible for walking one complete circuit of the perimeter each hour to check the guard positions and the general integrity of the defenses. The Green Berets had little faith in the ability of the Vietnamese to perform this task. ARVN soldiers had a well-deserved reputation for sleeping on guard duty. This was especially so among the ranks of the A Shau strike force, second rate troops recruited from the local populace. They were unreliable at best, and the Americans refused to trust their personal safety to them. I drew a shift from 0100 to 0300. I turned in early, hoping to get a few hours of rest before going on duty.

   Ten minutes before my watch began, Standing tip-toed into my cubicle and shook my shoulder gently, being careful not to disturb anyone else. “Rise and shine,” whispered the team sergeant. Most of the others lay sleeping quietly in their racks. It was silent except for an occasional grunt or the squeak of a bedspring. I lifted a hand to acknowledge Standing, and he shuffled back to the kitchen.

   I pulled on my boots and then stepped out of the sleeping bay. Standing had poured two cups of coffee from the battered pot that usually bubbled all night long. I muttered a grateful thank you, impressed with the treatment we were receiving, and slumped onto a wooden kitchen chair. I spooned some sugar into the steaming brew and sipped it. Bitter and extremely strong. I reached for the sugar again. Standing leaned against the refrigerator, absently watching me.

   “Pretty quiet tonight,” offered the chief non-com. “But keep an eye on that north bunker. Those humps have been missing the gong.”

   I nodded. I knew from experience that each guard position was equipped with a metal hoop strung from a bamboo pole. The guards at the main gate rang their gong roughly every fifteen minutes. The soldiers at the other positions were supposed to return the signal sequentially to confirm that they were awake and alert, and all was well. Apparently, the machine gunners in the north bunker had been missing their cue. This was not an uncommon experience. The Americans found it maddening.

   I gulped the last of my coffee and rose laboriously from the chair. I strapped on my pistol belt and then slung the carbine over my shoulder. Nudging the screen door open with my foot, I stepped out into the darkness. A swarm of mosquitoes, attracted by the lights of the team house, buzzed annoyingly around my head.

   It was a fairly clear, moonless night, but visibility was relatively good. With no city lights to eclipse them, thousands of stars twinkled brilliantly in the black sky. Their vast numbers and startling clarity were stunning. To the west, a few high clouds hung like a thin shroud above the horizon. In another five or six weeks, thick clouds associated with the rainy season would begin to roll into the valley, obscuring the skies for extended periods. Eighteen months later, the VC would take advantage of the cloud cover’s ability to limit air support and attack A Shau. The camp’s defenders would hold out for three days against an overwhelming force before finally abandoning the outpost. A Shau would never reopen again. The area would become a prime infiltration route for North Vietnamese forces entering South Vietnam.

   Now, however, I walked to the main gate and nodded to the guards. The Vietnamese were clad in tailored camouflage fatigues and brown berets. They seemed reasonably alert. Both had M-1 carbines slung on their shoulders. I jiggled the chains on the gate and found them tightly padlocked. The only keys to that lock were safely hung in the team house. “Number one!” I exclaimed pleasantly to the guards.

   “OK! OK!” The guards grinned happily, pleased with the simple compliment. I started to move away from the gate. If all went well, I should complete a full circuit of the camp in about fifteen minutes.

   Walking A Shau’s perimeter in the dead of night was a nerve-wracking experience. Shadows darted ominously. Every sound seemed amplified by the extreme quiet. Dry red clay crunched beneath my boots with every step. I felt painfully exposed. My mind conjured up images of gun sights targeting on my back. It was an extremely uncomfortable thought. Although the night was cool, dampness began to spread from my armpits as I passed behind the concrete generator building.

   CLANNNNG! I crouched reflexively at the sound of the gong at the main gate. I glanced around sheepishly, hoping no one had seen. I noted with annoyance that the north bunker directly ahead hadn’t responded. I swore softly and quickly covered the remaining twenty-five yards to the log emplacement.

   The position sat on a slight rise at the very apex of the triangular perimeter. It had an unobstructed field of fire northward in the direction of Ta Bat. The .50 caliber machine gun inside could pivot in a wide arc more than 240 degrees left and right. I stepped cautiously down into the sandbagged entrance. The interior was deathly quiet. I paused momentarily, waiting for my vision to adjust to the stygian blackness. Then I noticed the outlines of two bundles sprawled in a corner of the bunker. Jesus! Here they were supposed to be on guard. And instead, they were curled up in sleeping bags!

   “Hey!” I hissed. “Wake up!”

   A sleepy murmur responded to my outburst. One of the bundles began to stir.

   “Number ten, dammit!” I kicked at the other figure. The two Vietnamese scrambled out of their sacks. They looked embarrassed. “Now stay awake in here,” I growled. I’m sure they couldn’t understand my words, but they knew what I was saying. Both nodded their heads vigorously.

   I grimaced in disgust, then spun around and groped my way toward the doorway. I knew they’d probably go right back to sleep as soon as I left. I made a mental note to tell Standing about it. Maybe he’d report them to the camp commander, who’d probably do nothing. What a joke.

   The compound outside seemed relatively bright compared to the interior of the bunker. I resumed my trek, moving steadily south along the wire. I passed behind the team building and then cut across to the main gate again. All was quiet. I trudged back to the kitchen and stepped gingerly inside, careful not to disturb the sleeping Americans.

   I used the half hour remaining between rounds to write a letter. When finished, I dropped it into a wire basket that held outgoing mail. Incoming letters also went in there, but they never remained very long unless the recipient was out in the field.

   My second tour of the camp was uneventful. To my surprise, the north bunker responded promptly to the gong, so I didn’t bother to check on the occupants again. I awakened Sergeant Moore, my relief, at 0250. When I was certain that he was up and around, I went back to bed and fell asleep almost immediately.

   The next night I drew the first watch from 2300 to 0100. Rather than trying to grab a little rest first, I stayed up chatting with the team members until most of them had drifted off into the sleeping bay. With little else to do, I decided to start my first tour a bit early.

   I made a quick circuit of the perimeter, and finding nothing out of the ordinary, returned to the team house. Only Jones, one of the medics, remained seated in the kitchen. The young sergeant, just a year or two older than me, was writing a letter to his parents. He was wearing only a pair of fatigue pants cut off at the knees and rubber sandals. We conversed sporadically as he wrote.

   Just after midnight, I picked up my carbine and headed out the door again. I went directly to the front gate. Where everything seemed to be secure. Then I turned to begin the now-familiar trek along the wire.

   CRACK! CRACK! Two shots rattled from the northeast corner of camp. I halted in my tracks. What the fuck was going on now? I spotted muzzle flashes near the perimeter as two more reports echoed across the compound. I started to move cautiously in that direction, then hesitated, not quite sure what to do.

   Jones bolted past me, sandals flapping as he ran. He gestured madly with his weapon. “Watch the gate! Watch the gate!”

   I whirled and leveled my carbine at the entrance. I could see nothing but the two guards at the gate, staring wide-eyed into the darkness behind me. Inching sideways, I finally bumped up against the sandbag wall surrounding the mortar pit. I still had no idea what was happening.

   Major Ching burst from the team house, roaring for his interpreter. “Ho Chi… Find out what the hell they’re shooting at!”

   More shots crackled along the wire. By now the camp was filled with running men who jabbered in excitement as they darted about. Minh, the interpreter, now stood in the center of the compound comically dressed only in his undershorts. He called out to Ching, “He say he hear a noise and he shoot at it!”

   The Major reacted with exasperation. “Well, tell him to knock it off!”

   Minh chattered a shrill phrase and the shooting stopped. Ching turned to the men milling about the area. “Anyone see or hear anything?” Nobody had.

   I continued to cover the gate while some of the others checked the guard positions. Ten minutes later, after finding nothing, the group began to disperse. As far as we could tell, there had been no incoming fire. Jones shrugged as he walked past me on his way back to the team house. “Sometimes these characters get a little trigger happy.”

   At first light, the mystery was solved. The guards on the northeast wall spotted the carcass of a water buffalo just beyond the outer perimeter. The animal had evidently wandered into the wire from the nearby village during the night. It had somehow managed to avoid the minefield outside the fence, but the nervous sentry’s bullets had found and killed it. There would be hell to pay with the villagers this day. Sergeant Jones later referred to the incident as “a goat fuck.”

   I joined several other team members at the breakfast table. We chuckled about the buffalo while we enjoyed a meal of crackers with Australian butter topped off by lots of hot coffee.

   Standing came into the room. Major Ching wants a weapons check in twenty minutes.” He glanced at me. “Here’s your chance to fire an AR-15.”

   Ching was clearly concerned. The previous night’s incident had proved to be a false alarm, but the Major knew that the installation at A Shau was badly exposed. Harry Ching wanted to be sure that his men were ready for anything.

   We assembled in the northwest corner of camp with a wide array of weapons. Besides their personal AR-15s, the Special Forces soldiers had a vast inventory of BARs, Thompsons, light machine guns, and M-79 grenade launchers. Major Ching even brought along the team’s 57mm recoilless rifle. They threw some cans and bottles outside the perimeter and then began firing at them. Standing handed me his rifle. “Here. Try this.”

   Only the U.S. Special Forces carried the AR-15, later known as the M-16. The little black rifle was light, had a modest recoil, and was quite comfortable to shoot. It had a well-deserved reputation for causing devastating wounds with its tiny, high velocity ammunition. I looked forward to firing it.

   I took aim at one of the cans and squeezed off two rounds. Both passed harmlessly above the target. I glanced down at the weapon. The AR-15 had unusual raised sights. I realized that I would have to aim lower than I might have with my carbine. My next few shots sent the can spinning wildly across the ground. I really liked that little rifle. It made my weapon seem antiquated by comparison. I removed the magazine and inspected it more closely. Glancing up, I noticed Ching watching me. He had the recoilless rifle on his shoulder. “Wanna take a crack at this?” he grinned.

   I shook my head emphatically. “No thanks, Sir. I think I’ll stick to these popguns.”

   He laughed heartily and then turned back to the perimeter. One of the team members loaded a shell into the 57. Ching pointed the barrel westward, peered intently through the eyepiece and pressed the trigger. A tremendous thunderclap erupted from the weapon. I was momentarily stunned by the powerful concussion. The round rocketed off toward the hills, where it exploded with a distant thump. The big rifle’s violent back blast stirred up a huge cloud of choking dust that swirled wildly around us.

   A stentorian voice rang out despite spasms of dust-induced coughing. “JEE-ZUS CHRIST, Major! Please don’t fire that mother-fucker again!”

   We all roared with glee despite our discomfort. When everyone had finished firing, we cleared and inspected the weapons before carrying them back inside the team house.

   Later that morning I walked over to the ARVN barracks for a radio check. Hue had no traffic for us, so I returned to the team house. Crittenden and Ching were seated at the table engaged in a quiet discussion. The Major gave me a brief nod when I reported that there were no messages. I sat down on the bamboo couch and began flipping through a magazine.

   Sergeant Monaghan, the demolitions expert, swept through the plastic fringe and clomped into the kitchen. He spoke softly to Ching and then glanced over at me. “Hey, Oliveri… I’m taking out a short patrol. Wanna come along? We’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

   I turned to Crittenden. “OK with you, Sir?”

   The Major casually waved his hand. “Sure. Go ahead. There’s nothing else happening anyway. Just be careful. I don’t have another radio operator.”

   I rolled my eyes. Well, at least he was concerned for my safety, even if not for the reason I might have hoped.

   Monaghan grinned. “Come on… get your weapon. You got any canteens?”

   I shook my head. The stocky sergeant went back into the sleeping bay and returned with two canvas-covered water bottles. “Here. Put these on your belt.”

   I carried the canteens back to my cubicle and hooked them into the eyelets in my pistol belt. Then I added two thirty round magazines for the carbine and three clips for the .45. I buckled on the entire conglomeration, grabbed my cap off the bed and went out to rejoin Monaghan.

   The sergeant was waiting by the mortar pit with several nungs and a squad of Vietnamese soldiers. When he saw me emerge from the team house he turned and waved his arm like a cavalry officer.

   We began to move out down the path to the Vietnamese compound, passing through to the airstrip. Monaghan led us to the right and followed the runway to the end. We then marched steadily west toward the ridgeline, gradually spreading out until there was a five- yard interval between each man. The nungs moved up to take the point. Monaghan and I dropped back until I was fifth in line, directly behind the Green Beret sergeant.

   We carried a lot of firepower for a small patrol. Most of the Vietnamese had big M-1 rifles hanging almost comically from their tiny shoulders. One carried a Prick-10 radio. Although he hadn’t said it, I guessed that Monaghan may have asked me along because he felt that I could take over as radio operator in an emergency. Another soldier had an M-79 grenade launcher. Near the rear plodded a two-man machine gun crew. Monaghan was armed with his AR-15 rifle as well as a big .357 magnum pistol. I was carrying my automatic carbine and the .45. We were really loaded for bear.

   We soon reached the base of the hills and began climbing. It was hot on the hillside, but not excessively so, I thought. Within minutes, however, my shirt was soaked through and my eyes stung from perspiration. My legs began to cramp painfully. Too much time behind the radio, I mused ruefully.

   Monaghan glanced back at me. “You OK?”

   I nodded grimly. There was no way I was going to let these guys know that I was hurting.

   About halfway up the hillside we reached a small trail running parallel to the ridgeline. The point man stepped cautiously out onto the path and veered to the right. The rest of us followed. The going got easier once the trail leveled off and we stopped climbing uphill. I reached for one of the canteens. After swirling some tepid water around in my mouth, I spat it on the ground. Then I drained half the bottle. Damn, it was hot! I wiped the sweat from my brow with the back of a forearm.

   The vegetation formed a triple canopy overhead. Dense elephant grass interspersed with other underbrush rose to chest height. Taller shrubs and small trees reached up to about twenty feet. Still larger trees topped out about forty feet above us. It was deathly still along the trail. The only sound came from the soft buzzing of some insects. I was instinctively aware of the need for noise discipline. I found myself whispering whenever I needed to converse with Monaghan.

   We caught occasional glimpses of the camp through small gaps in the emerald wall of vegetation. I was astonished to see how every detail of the outpost was clearly visible from this point. When we passed behind the team house, I looked down again and saw someone, obviously an American from his height, walking across the compound. No wonder we’re patrolling up here, I thought. Can’t just sit back and let Charlie watch everything going on below.

   We continued steadily along the trail. Monaghan kept glancing back to check on me. My legs trembled with fatigue and there was a distinct coppery taste in my mouth. But I stubbornly nodded my head to let him know that I was OK.

   The nung on point suddenly held up his arm and we halted. Monaghan motioned for me to get down. I scuttled crab-like into a small hollow beside the trail. It stank of rotting plant matter. I pointed the carbine up the trail but saw nothing.

   I was impressed with the discipline being shown by these soldiers. No one appeared overly excited. There was no talking or coughing. They just dropped in place and waited. I used the opportunity to drain my first canteen while Monaghan edged up forward to see what had halted us.

      There was a shell crater beside the trail directly ahead. It seemed relatively fresh. Probably from one of Moore’s H&I missions, I thought. The jungle had an astonishing ability to quickly overgrow artillery damage, much as we would replace a divot on a golf course. This hole would disappear before long, yet now it showed no signs of healing. But there was something else. The lead nung knelt beside Monaghan and pointed out a splash of earth that had been ejected from the crater. It contained a partial sandal print. Someone had been up here, and not long before.

   My senses sharpened as quick jolts of adrenaline coursed through my veins. I forgot about my fatigue. Monaghan motioned for us to proceed, but cautiously. We inched slowly ahead, weapons held at the ready. My palms were moist, so I alternately wiped each one on

My pants legs. My eyes scanned the damp jungle as we moved. I hoped that we weren’t walking into an ambush.

   We continued without incident for about fifteen minutes. Finding nothing further, Monaghan decided that we had gone far enough and should return to camp. After a brief rest, he got the patrol turned around and we began working our way back down the hillside. It was much easier going downhill, and we reached the end of the runway in less than thirty minutes. As we walked along the airstrip, Monaghan slapped me on the back and chuckled. I guess he was as relieved as I was that we hadn’t run into anything further and were now apparently out of danger.

   When we re-entered the compound, Monaghan went off to report to Major Ching. I’m sure the Green Beret commander wasn’t happy to hear what we had found. The sandal print was an additional piece to the worrisome puzzle that Ching’s team was working diligently to solve. Meanwhile I headed for the sleeping bay where I laboriously removed my gear and stowed it. I was feeling quite self-satisfied for having completed the grueling patrol, but physically and mentally exhausted from the hard climb and the stressful experience on the trail. However, I was extremely grateful that it hadn’t been much worse. I dropped onto the rack and quickly fell asleep.

   The next day we had a very distinguished visitor. Green Beret Captain Roger Donlon, the hero of Nam Dong, flew in to confer with Major Ching. Donlon was still suffering from wounds inflicted the previous month when his camp, the one I had recently visited with Major Crittenden, was nearly overrun by a force of 900 Viet Cong. The word was that the pale and quiet man before us was in line to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions that night. It would be the first of the Vietnam War.

   As Major Crittenden and I entered the team house, Major Ching gestured toward his guest. “Forrest, this is Roger Donlon.”

   Crittenden offered his hand and said, “Roger, it’s a privilege to meet you. I understand you’re up for the CMH.”

   Donlon nodded wordlessly and shook hands with both of us. I was thrilled to meet the man whose actions we had heard about and found so unbelievable. To think that we had played just a small part in the relief of his camp was extremely satisfying. In December of 1964, Captain Roger Donlon received the Medal of Honor from President Lyndon Johnson during a ceremony at the White House.

   Ching swung a couple of chairs alongside the table and motioned for us to sit down. He then told about the night Nam Dong was attacked. The distant flashes of bursting shells at Donlon’s camp had been clearly visible from A Shau. Ching had ordered a full alert. The team had spent a nervous night monitoring the radio for battle reports and watching the light show to the south.

   Donlon said nothing during Ching’s monologue. We all knew the story of Nam Dong by now, and he had little more to add. But he seemed interested to learn that Crittenden and I had recently been there and asked several questions about the camp. Finally, Ching’s interpreter, Minh, came in and put an end to the discussion. “The Caribou is ready to take off, Major Ching.”

   “OK, Ho Chi,” said Ching. “Thank you.”

   Captain Donlon and another officer shook hands all around. Donlon was scheduled to leave within days for the States. We walked with the two visiting Green Berets to the main gate. Donlon waved and then trudged laboriously across to the landing strip where the two-engine Caribou waited. The crew chief stuck out his hand to help the young captain up the ramp. Once the tailgate closed, the aircraft quickly took off for the return flight.

   During the days following our encounter with Captain Donlon, contact with the enemy was sparse. I had little to do but send an occasional situation report for Major Crittenden. One particular afternoon Crittenden gave me a routine message to transmit back to Hue. When I got to the radio and started sending, I found that the atmospherics were especially bad that day. On top of that, the VC were jamming our frequency, as usual. It was next to impossible to get a message through. I tried putting on a headset and using Morse Code (CW). I began to make some progress that way, but it was awfully slow.

   After an hour passed and I hadn’t returned, Crittenden came down to look for me. When I saw him, I whipped off the headset. “Communication is really bad, Sir, but I’m making progress. I’ll stick with it until they get it.”

   He nodded and headed back to the team house. I returned to work. Eventually Hue rogered, so I shut down the radio and took off. Hoping to avoid boredom and the building heat, I decided to take a nap. I stretched out fully clothed on Patience’s bed. A gentle breeze flowed through the open shutters, helping to cool the room. I soon nodded off.

   Some time later I awoke with a start. I had been having a recurring dream again. My body felt cool and clammy despite the heat. Cold drops of perspiration clung to my underarms. I sat up laboriously and massaged my eye sockets with clenched fists. The arteries in my temples pulsed violently in tempo with my pounding heart.

   The dream had become a nightmare, and it was always the same. First there was total darkness punctuated by wildly colored flashes of light. Then a strong sensation of vertigo followed, during which I struggled desperately to halt my fall by clutching at threads hanging tantalizingly just beyond my grasp. I was sure that the dream signified my death. But how it would take place and when was unclear, concealed in the murky blackness. I guess that bastard supply corporal in Saigon had gotten far deeper into my mind than I realized. Now I couldn’t shake off a growing sense of foreboding. Somehow, I knew that I wouldn’t survive to go home. I sighed heavily and stood up.

   I could hear the low murmur of voices in the team room. The camp seemed relatively quiet, with normal activity restricted by the heat. Two flies were circling just overhead, engaged in a curious buzzing squabble. I swiped at them with my rumpled fatigue hat and they disappeared.

   Stepping into the kitchen, I found Ching, Standing, and another sergeant chatting. I sat on the bamboo couch and picked up a magazine. I had just begun to flip the pages when Major Crittenden stuck his head in the door.

   “Harry… You in there?”

   Ching turned. “Yeah, Forrest. What’s up?”

   Crittenden seemed disturbed. “You, uh, better come down to the ARVN compound,” he stammered. “They just got a message from your patrol. One of your men is down.”

   Ching bolted from the room and dashed off toward the gate. Standing and the other sergeant exchanged apprehensive glances. They had both served for several years with Patience and Cotter, the two who were on the operation.

   A haggard Ching returned fifteen minutes later. “Patience is dead,” he announced grimly. Sniper got him through the heart. A med-evac is on the way now to pick him up.”

   “Goddamn it!” roared Standing. He slammed the table in helpless fury. The usually self-reliant Ching seemed uncertain what to do next. Finally, he turned and trudged slowly out through the door.

   I peered uneasily at Standing. The team sergeant sat quietly with his elbows on the table and his forehead resting on his cradled hands. I exhaled softly and slipped the magazine back into the rack. I felt like an intruder and wished I could be someplace else – anyplace else. It was an awkward moment. I muttered, “Sarge, I’m sorry.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

   Standing looked up in surprise as if he had forgotten that I was in the room. “Thanks, Oliveri.” He dropped his head back onto his hands. After a short pause, he spoke again without lifting his eyes. “You know, me and Patience were good buddies. We knew each other in the States before we even joined this team. Our families are back in Fort Bragg now. I’m gonna have to see his wife next month when we go home.” He paused. “What the hell can I tell her? Damn!”

   I wished I could think of something comforting to say, but nothing appropriate came to mind. “Listen,” I mumbled, “I’ll move out of his cubicle. I don’t think I should be in there now anyway.”

   Standing’s head shot up. His eyes flashed. “No, damn it! You stay there. He’s dead and there’s not a thing you or me or anyone else can do to change that.” Immediately regretting his outburst, Standing’s voice softened. “Stay there, Oliveri. Patience wouldn’t have minded.”

   I stood up, wishing to give the sergeant some time to himself. For want of a reason to leave, I made a pretense of going down to check on the radio. As I stepped through the door, I met Crittenden coming up the path.

   “You heard about Sergeant Patience?” he asked. I nodded. “This operation’s wrapping up,” he continued. “We’ll be going in tomorrow.”

   I can’t say that I was disappointed. I had no desire to stay in the dead sergeant’s quarters. It just didn’t seem right. Someone would have to pack up his gear, and I really didn’t want to be around for that. It would be best for all concerned if we just went back to Hue.

   The remaining team members spent a quiet night in camp. There was little talk, and none of the usual laughter and grabass. Several of Patience’s closer friends sat silently nursing cans of beer, alone with their pain. Some of the others turned in earlier than usual. A Shau itself lay hushed in the tropical darkness. I spent an extremely restless night in the dead sergeant’s bunk, unable to sleep and suffering from pangs of guilt.

   After breakfast the next morning, I packed my bag and then carried it out into the team room. The Otter was due in at noon. I checked the ARVN barracks to be sure that the radio was taken down and properly secured for the trip, something I usually did myself but had delegated to the Vietnamese on this operation. As I returned to the team house, Major Crittenden emerged from the building carrying his gear. I said, “I’ll be right with you, Sir.” He nodded and continued to the airstrip.

   Standing was seated at the table. The team sergeant looked haggard. I said, “Sarge, I’d like to thank you for everything. I hope we’ll meet again.”

   Standing flashed a wan smile. “Thanks, Oliveri. I just hope to hell it isn’t in this God-forsaken place.”

   I walked down to the runway where Crittenden and Ching were standing together. Within minutes the Otter appeared in the distance, its wings waggling in a slight updraft. The plane made one pass over the camp and then glided to a soft landing. The pilot taxied over to where we waited, pausing only long enough to toss out a packet of mail to Ching. The Major winced when he saw Patience’s name on the top envelope. Crittenden and I climbed aboard and waved solemnly to the Special Forces commander. The Otter’s engine roared. We began to roll down the runway. As we lifted off, I twisted around in my seat for a last look at the camp. I would never see A Shau again. What a wild place, I thought. I had met some good people there, but I wasn’t sorry to leave. And to tell the truth. We hadn’t accomplished very much. The operation had yielded only a few stragglers. Our mission would go into the books as a failure, but that was the nature of the war in Vietnam during the summer of 1964.

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Incident at Ta Bat

June 27, 2019 at 2:58 am (Uncategorized)

Note: This story is an excerpt from my book, “The Frost Weeds”, published by Hellgate Press.

Camp Ta Bat was a primitive outpost in the remote A Shau Valley adjacent to the Laotian border. The Vietnamese 36th Ranger Battalion, advised by an American officer, called Ta Bat home. The A Shau was probably the most wildly beautiful and severely contoured area in South Vietnam. It contained some of the most impassable terrain in Southeast Asia. Elephants were known to roam there, and an occasional tiger sometimes came down from the hills in search of prey.

The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) maintained two outposts in The Valley, and American Special Forces manned another. Small units of the Viet Cong operated freely throughout the area. During 1964, the opposing forces had reached a virtual stand-off. The Allies enjoyed superior firepower, while the VC were more lightly armed but more mobile.

Allied intelligence indicated that The Valley was a primary infiltration point for the North Vietnamese regulars just beginning to travel south on the so-called “Ho Chi Minh Trail” in Laos. ARVN and American units relied on a ten to one manpower advantage to deny this route to the enemy. Unknown to Allied command, however, plans were being put into motion in Hanoi that would not only alter that ratio, but would dramatically escalate the conflict from a modest counter-insurgency effort to a full-scale war. The A Shau Valley rested precariously on an anvil of vulnerability, and the hammer was already falling.

It was June of 1964, and I was scheduled to fly out from Advisory Team #3 headquarters in the city of Hue to Ta Bat for two weeks of duty as radio operator there. CHOP (Chief Operator) Kane drove me to Tay Loc airstrip inside the Hue Citadel early in the morning, where a Caribou resupply plane waited on the runway. A squad of ARVN soldiers was loading the cargo: several dozen huge burlap bags of rice, numerous bamboo coops crammed with live chickens and ducks, three or four massive hogs whose legs had been tied to prevent them from moving around during the flight, and a shipment of ammunition for the Rangers at Ta Bat. I was the lone passenger.

I marveled at the crude but effective method of resupply. The birds and hogs would remain alive at the outpost until needed. Then the soldiers would kill just enough to prepare a meal. It was a simple means of storage that negated the need for complex refrigeration systems.

When the Vietnamese finished loading, I climbed up the open tailgate into the plane. There were no seats, so I perched atop a stack of rice bags and hooked one arm through a webbed cargo strap. There were no windows either. I wouldn’t be able to see much, but it was a short flight from Hue to Ta Bat.

The tailgate closed, and the twin props roared to life. The olive green plane taxied slowly to the far end of the runway where it then turned into the wind. As the pilot gunned the engines, the Caribou began rolling rapidly down the strip. We lifted off and rose swiftly at a steep angle.

I glanced across at the rows of bamboo coops. The sudden ascent had alarmed the birds. They now squawked and flapped their wings in outrage, sending swirls of tiny white feathers along the deck of the cargo bay. I chuckled at the sight. Nothing like traveling first class, I thought.

Twenty minutes later, the aircraft banked left, floated across a line of green, rolling mountain peaks, and entered the A Shau Valley. By craning my neck to peer through the cockpit windows, I caught a glimpse of the terrain below. Its smooth, billiard table appearance was marred only by some intermittent shell craters resembling open sores on the surface. As the triangular outpost loomed in the distance, the Caribou descended sharply and then headed straight in toward the runway.

The plane touched down on the crude landing strip of perforated steel plate (PSP) laid over packed earth, vibrating madly as the engines roared into reverse. Prop wash sent a sandstorm of red dust swirling in the craft’s wake. The Caribou bobbed violently up and down on the uneven surface as the pilot literally stood on the brakes. He brought us to a halt about two hundred yards from the end of the runway, then turned and rolled slowly back toward the main compound. The tailgate motors began to whine just before the aircraft lurched to a complete stop. The ramp cracked open and swung down quickly to ground level. A blast of hot, dry air swept into the interior. I blinked rapidly as dust peppered my face, then shuffled to the rear of the plane and hopped down into the blinding afternoon glare.

A hatless American officer with dark hair and black bushy eyebrows was standing nearby with the Vietnamese cargo crew. He strode over to me and glanced at my name tag. I tossed him a salute that he didn’t return. “Hello, Oliveri,” he said. “Welcome to Ta Bat. I’m Captain Vincent. Come on, I’ll show you to your hooch.”

I shouldered my bag and followed the captain through the main gate. An ARVN soldier stood inside a log and sandbag guard post within the entrance. Barriers of crossed logs strung with barbed wire had been swung aside to form a narrow passageway. We turned to the left and clomped alongside a meandering trench network that appeared to be about four feet deep. Clumps of spindly trees grew from small mounds of red earth surrounding the ditches.

Vincent led me to a point where two trenches intersected and a dilapidated bunker constructed of wooden logs lay. It had a flimsy screen door, and there were patches of weeds growing from its dirt roof. A battered tin basin rested on an old ammunition box outside the entrance. Vincent pulled the screen open. “Get yourself settled in. I’ll be back for you later. We’re having dinner with the camp commander.”

I stepped inside, swung my duffel bag down, and glanced around. It was pretty grim. The bunker was octagon-shaped, about fifteen feet in diameter, with a dirt floor. Corrugated metal sheets nailed to the roof formed a crude ceiling. Woven grass mats covered the walls. A narrow alcove served as the entrance, with three broad steps of notched logs and earth fill leading down to the interior. The fragile-looking screen door was the only barrier to the elements.

To the left of the entrance was the “radio room”, for lack of a better term. It was just a small area set off by two vertical logs that supported the roof. An “Angry-9” radio sat on a rough plank table against one wall. Static popped and hissed from its receiver. A snake-like power cable led from the radio through a small hole in the bunker wall to a portable gasoline generator outside. A telegraph key and a set of black plastic earphones lay on the table.

A PRC-10 radio was strapped to one of the roof support posts with green web belts. The “Prick-10” was used to contact aircraft and also served as an alternate means of communication with A Luoi, our sister camp four miles to the north. The ARVN 36th Ranger Battalion used the two outposts as a base of operations.

The battalion was split at the time, with two companies of rangers manning each of the locations. Highway 548, an ill-defined dirt road, meandered through the valley, passing close to both Ta Bat and A Luoi. But it was seldom used due to its poor condition. And anyone traveling the road was almost certain to be ambushed. As a result, the two camps were virtually isolated from one another.

Thompson had warned me about the grim conditions, so I was not particularly surprised by what I found. A single cot sat against the opposite wall. It reeked of must. I dropped my gear there beneath a sputtering gasoline lantern that hung from a nail. A battered kerosene refrigerator stood at the far end of the structure. Out of curiosity, I looked inside and found only half a dozen rusted Coca-Cola cans.

Opposite the “radio room” was a small kitchen area. A compact, single burner gasoline stove sat on a rough wooden bench. Beside it was a tarnished coffee pot with a long, dented spout. A white metal shelf above the bench held a collection of unmatched aluminum plates, glass jars, square saltine cans, and tin cups. Several blackened pots and pans hung from nails embedded in the wall. That was about it. Pretty primitive, but I hadn’t been expecting the Hilton.

Vincent returned several hours later, and we strolled across the compound to where Captain Ninh and his staff officers sat beneath a grass canopy. Captain Vincent introduced me to everyone in fluent Vietnamese. Each of the officers smiled and stood to offer a handshake. Then we sat down to dinner as two enlisted men served up heaping bowls of steaming rice, boiled greens, and the foul-smelling sauce known as nuoc mam. I helped myself to the rice and greens, but passed on the nuoc mam, which was made by fermenting fish in the hot sun for weeks.

I marveled at the dexterity of the Vietnamese as they easily shoveled mounds of rice into their mouths with chopsticks. I tried doing the same, but only succeeded in spraying rice across my lap, much to the delight of the group. I grinned sheepishly as a considerate soldier handed me a fork.

Vincent chatted amiably with the Vietnamese as we ate. My knowledge of the language was still rather sketchy, so I just listened quietly throughout the meal. Dai Uy Ninh, the camp commander, and the Bac Si, or medical officer, spoke passable English. They were neat, professional looking, and seemed to be well-educated. I was impressed. As the meal progressed they questioned Vincent about General William Westmoreland, who was in the process of replacing General Paul Harkins as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Ninh asked, “Captain Vincent, what kind of man is General Westmoreland?”

Vincent thought for a moment and then said, “Well, Dai Uy, I don’t know too much about him other than he’s known as a more aggressive soldier than General Harkins. And he certainly looks like a general.”

Ninh held his chopsticks poised over his bowl as he contemplated that. “Do you think more American soldiers will come to our country?”

Now it was Vincent’s turn to reflect. He knitted his brow. “I believe that would depend on your government’s wishes, Dai Uy.”

Ninh nodded in understanding and scooped more rice into his mouth. The Bac Si glanced up from his bowl. “Tell me, Dai Uy Vincent, what do the American people think of our war?”

“Well, Theiu Uy Tranh, I honestly don’t think many of them know much about it. The ones who do assume my government must know what it’s doing.”

Tranh pursued the point. “My father fought for the Viet Minh against the French. I know the determination of the Communists. Even now they are building up their strength in the South. Do you think America will stand by us if the war grows?”

Vincent pondered this momentarily. “That is a difficult question to answer. I think yes, but I cannot be sure. In my country the people tell the government what to do. They will make the final decision.” Tranh seemed satisfied with that answer.

As we finished our meal, the mess boys brought several pots of strong Vietnamese tea. We drank it plain from small china cups, and the conversation continued in a lighter vein. “Dai Uy,” said Ninh, “in Vietnam very few have automobiles. How many Americans do?”

“I’d say just about everyone.”

The group seated around the table murmured in admiration. Bac Si Tranh seemed skeptical. “And how many have television?”

Vincent answered, “Again, just about everyone.”

Ninh sat wistfully with his chin resting on his hand, mulling Vincent’s reply. “I think that this America of yours must be a truly wonderful place.”

After dinner I returned to the bunker to settle down. My first day in Ta Bat had been fairly pleasant. “This won’t be so bad,” I said aloud to myself. I had no idea how wrong I was.

Two mornings later I had just cranked up the generator behind the bunker and turned to head back inside. Suddenly I heard a CRAAACK! and dirt shot up from near my feet. Someone was shooting at me! I took off running with bullets raising dust at my heels, and dived into the trench, crash-landing with a thud and wrenching my shoulder. My white t-shirt was smeared with mud. For some strange reason I found this hilarious and roared with laughter despite the fright and pain of my injury. I guess you never really know how you’ll react in a situation like that until it happens.

I had left the generator running, so I limped into the bunker and sent a message to Hue about what had just taken place. Captain Vincent wasn’t in camp, so I knew he wouldn’t be coming to check on me. But what amazed me was that NOBODY responded. The Vietnamese must have figured that the shooting was just some soldier taking target practice at the small firing range nearby where we occasionally went to test our weapons. I still shake my head in annoyance when I think about that. I could have been lying badly-wounded in the bottom of that trench with no help coming. Unbelievable. I sent the brief report to Hue, but never heard anything back, which wasn’t unusual.

I waited about half an hour before venturing tentatively outside to shut down the generator. There was no further gunfire. Whoever had taken the potshots at me was probably long gone by then. My shoulder ached for several days afterward, but I had learned a valuable lesson. Never again would I step outside the bunker wearing a white, easily-visible t-shirt.

After a week, I began to settle into a regular routine. There was little to do other than to send or receive an occasional message or just listen to chatter on the net. Sometimes the enemy would try to jam us by transmitting on the same frequency. It was almost impossible to complete a message under those circumstances, but we continued on anyway to make the culprits think that they weren’t affecting us. Then we would simply re-send traffic later when the interference was gone. I spent most of my day reading one or another of the paperback novels stored in a box under my bunk. When I got bored of that, I took a walk around the camp. That soon ended as the weather deteriorated.

Most mornings started out sunny, but angry black clouds often boiled up by midday. Wild thunderstorms punctuated by violent flashes of lightning swept rapidly down the valley. Sheets of blowing rain fell for about an hour and then abruptly ceased. The camp soon became a sea of mud. It was eerie, almost supernatural. The A Shau Valley was truly the most primeval place I had ever seen.

Before long the camp became a sodden mass of red mud. Were it not for the steel matting on the runway, no aircraft could have landed at Ta Bat to resupply us.

I seldom saw Vincent now except when he had a message to send. The captain spent most of his time with Ninh and then bedded down in the command bunker at night. I began spending more and more time in the commo bunker, living on the C- rations that Doug kept sending out. I hauled drinking water from the nearby stream in five gallon jerry cans. You had to treat it with a handful of iodine tablets before it was safe to drink.

Personal hygiene was another problem. The ARVN soldiers used an open slit trench as a latrine. They simply squatted over the narrow trough to do their business. I found this to be very uncomfortable. Americans, after all, were used to sitting down to take a crap. Someone had left a battered toilet seat beside the latrine. It was filthy and repulsive, but I decided to try it.

The only way to use the seat was to place it flat on the ground with the hole centered over the trench. As I lowered myself awkwardly onto it, I lost my balance and sat down heavily. I reached out reflexively to break my fall and thrust my hand into a pile of loose shit.

“Ahhh, Christ!” I gagged in disgust and jammed my hand into the trench dirt in a vain attempt to cleanse it. Glancing around to see if anyone had witnessed the humiliating incident, I pulled up my pants with my left hand. My face burned with embarrassment. I slinked back to the bunker where a bar of soap and a water can awaited. From that point on, I used the latrine only when absolutely necessary, and then it was in the Vietnamese manner.

I did my bathing in the stream. Ta Bat was situated on a small knoll overlooking the tiny Roa Loa River. A series of log and earth steps led from the barbed-wire perimeter down about a dozen feet to the water. The stream was about eight feet wide at this point, and perhaps two feet deep. Twin strips of perforated steel plate stretched across the two banks so that the rangers could reach mid-stream to fill their water cans.

A machine gun nest overlooked the water point. Several weeks earlier, the VC had snapped an ambush on a ranger water party in broad daylight, killing one and wounding two others. Since then the nest was always manned during the day. Somehow that gave me little comfort.

One morning when I could no longer live with myself, I went down to the stream to take a bath. Four rangers in faded green fatigues were already there, washing clothes or filling water cans. I stripped down to my shorts, then walked out onto the steel mat furthest upstream. I laid my towel on the makeshift bridge and stepped off into the gently gurgling water. The stream was icy cool and crystal clear. Oddly, it arose in the hills somewhere to the east, tumbled down past Ta Bat out into the lush, green A Shau Valley, and then turned westward into Laos. It struck me that the VC probably drank from its waters as well.

I had just begun to lather myself when one of the Vietnamese troopers whistled softly to catch my attention. The soldier made a drinking motion with his hand. When I realized what he was trying to tell me, I nodded in understanding. Apparently they took their water from this position and washed downstream. I snatched my towel and moved over to the other steel plank to finish my bath. The ranger flashed a good-natured smile. I winked at him.

I was developing a liking for the Vietnamese soldiers. Most were polite and somewhat shy, unlike many of the young civilians I had encountered in Hue and Saigon. In their over-sized American helmets, they reminded me of little boys playing army. Most of them seemed in awe of the huge Americans. I wondered how such benign and passive men could become competent soldiers. Yet, the 36th Ranger Battalion enjoyed an impressive reputation among the U.S. advisors.

When I had finished bathing in the chilly stream, I dried myself with the towel and then trudged back uphill to the bunker. As I dressed, the radio crackled. “Frost Weed Charlie, this is Frost Weed Alpha. I have one routine. Over.”

I dashed outside to crank up the generator. Returning to the bunker, I keyed the handset. “Frost Weed Alpha, this is Charlie. I’m ready to copy. Over.”

A short coded message followed. I copied it, rogered receipt, and decoded it using the current shackle sheets. Someone back in Hue wanted to know how many Americans slept in my bunker. What the hell kind of question was that? Without giving it much thought, I responded to net control. “Frost Weed Alpha, this is Charlie. The answer to your inquiry is one… I spell, Oscar-November-Echo. Over.”

“Roger, Charlie. Thank you. Out.”

The peculiar request puzzled me. One of the problems with being an outpost radio operator was that you seldom got any feedback on your messages. I knew that the information went back to the intelligence section at the Citadel, but I had no idea what became of it after that. I shrugged. Well, it didn’t seem very important.

I went outside to shut down the generator, and, out of boredom, kept walking along the camp perimeter. “Old” Ta Bat was gradually decomposing into the red clay of the valley floor. The rangers had begun construction of a new camp on the opposite side of the airstrip. In fact, the two 105mm howitzers had already been relocated there. When work was completed, the rangers were scheduled to abandon “old” Ta Bat and move across to their new home. For now, the original camp still contained most of the enlisted men’s quarters as well as two 60mm mortar positions and the single 81mm mortar pit.

I strolled through the open main gate out onto the landing strip. The air was heavy and still. I recalled Lansing mentioning that he liked to take late afternoon walks along the runway, but I wasn’t feeling that adventurous. This was still VC country, and it seemed a bit foolhardy to tempt fate, especially after the incident at the water point. I felt badly exposed and isolated away from the safety of the camp. I paused to study the heavily-jungled hillsides in the distance. They appeared ominously quiet. Was anyone out there? If so, were they planning to come for us soon? The longer I remained in the A Shau, the more I came to fear its almost supernatural presence. A chill swept down my spine. I shook my head and turned back toward the bunker.

Vincent stormed through the screen door the next morning as I was preparing a cup of tea. “Goddammit, Oliveri… Did you tell Hue that you were alone in here?”

I glanced up in surprise. “Yes, Sir. I did. They called and wanted to know how many Americans were in this bunker. It seemed like a strange question.”

Vincent was livid. “You caused me a lot of grief. I got a message through ARVN channels ordering me to move back into this bunker. Dai Uy Ninh is mad as hell.”

I was stunned. “I’m sorry, Captain. I didn’t realize it was anything important.”

Vincent grunted in disgust and then left, slamming the screen door behind him. He returned later carrying a small bag of his personal gear, and tossed it on the spare cot. From that point on he spent his days across the runway at “new” Ta Bat, returning each evening to our bunker. Our relationship remained frosty. We only spoke when necessary. It was a very uncomfortable situation.

One evening soon after, just at dusk, a twelve man ranger patrol slipped out of camp through the main gate and headed north off the end of the runway. I watched from atop a mound of earth outside the bunker until they disappeared into the gathering gloom. Then I returned to the bunker, where the Coleman lantern hissed softly on the table. I pumped up the gas tank, and the lamp flared higher. Vincent was still across at the new camp. Rummaging through the box of paperbacks, I found a recent best-seller and lay back on the cot to read.

Moments later a burst of automatic fire shattered the evening calm. I bolted upright. That was close! A fusillade of rifle shots followed almost immediately. I recognized the sharp crack of carbines and the huskier bark of M-1 rifles. The automatic fire had come from at least two Viet Cong AK-47 rifles that were trading rounds with the rangers.

I rushed outside and scrambled to the top of the trench. Just to the north of the runway, red tracers criss-crossed with green ones in the darkness. Three grenades exploded with vicious thumps and brilliant bursts of garish white light. Suddenly a wild round snapped by my head. I leaped back into the trench, raced into the bunker, and snatched up my .45 pistol. On the way out again I grabbed my steel pot and slapped it on my head. I didn’t realize until later that I had it on backward.

A Vietnamese mortar crew had already reached the nearby gun pit. They slid an illumination round down the tube as I watched. The shell thunked skyward in a shower of sparks and exploded overhead, bathing the perimeter in a lurid yellow glare. The gunners in the pit waited impatiently for further orders. After what seemed like an eternity, but was in reality only a few seconds, the word came at last. “Ban! Ban!” (Fire! Fire!)

Three high explosive rounds rocketed out of the tube in rapid succession and burst in a tight pattern around the ambush site. The exchange of gunfire slowed almost immediately.

The mortar crew fired off another illumination round before resuming its bombardment. Three more heavy shell bursts effectively ended the fight. Within minutes I could make out a line of ghostly shadows approaching the end of the runway. It was the ranger patrol, and they were carrying a wounded comrade. I began to make my way toward the main gate with a squad of heavily-armed Vietnamese. We met three rangers hauling the injured soldier, who had been shot through the hip. Several of us grabbed on to the casualty and helped carry him through the barbed wire gate and down into the dispensary. We hoisted him onto a table.

A medic slit his trousers with a pair of surgical scissors, squinting in the feeble glow of a single lantern. The enemy bullet had drilled a neat round hole through the soldier’s pelvis. A thin stream of blood trickled from the bluish circle.

The medic leaned closer to examine the wound in the dim light. A second corpsman tapped me on the shoulder. He pointed to the faintly hissing lantern and whispered with some urgency, “Same-same?”

I nodded and set out for the commo bunker, followed closely by the corpsman. Once inside, I picked up the glowing lantern from beside my cot. Hell. It was almost empty. I handed it to the medic and we raced back to the dispensary.

To safely refuel a Coleman lantern, you were supposed to wait until the white-hot mantle cooled down. In retrospect, if I had given it any thought we might have avoided what happened next. But there was no time for delay. The wounded ranger was in terrible pain and might die if we couldn’t get some light on him. The corpsman grabbed a small can of gasoline from beneath the table and began pouring it into the base of the lamp. Suddenly there was a dull FOOMF as the fuel ignited. Burning gasoline splattered across the back of my left hand. I screamed in agony.

One of the rangers leaped forward and beat out the splash of flame on the bunker floor with a blanket. I was doubled over, gasping with pain. A corpsman appeared and took a look at my blackened hand. He smeared a dark, greasy ointment on it, and then wrapped it in a loose-fitting bandage. Satisfied that he had done all he could, the medic returned to treating the wounded ranger.

I reeled back to my bunker and sat heavily on my cot. The pain was so intense that I couldn’t sit still. I rocked back and forth in a vain effort to find relief. After a few minutes of this, I heard footsteps approaching down the trench line. Captain Vincent stepped into the bunker. He looked concerned. “Are you OK?”

I nodded wordlessly.

“The Bac Si, sent these over. They’ll help the pain.” He held out a couple of white capsules. “You know, we might be able to get you a Purple Heart for this since we were in contact with the enemy at the time.”

I was hurting too much to give a damn about that and just groaned in reply.

“Well, there’ll be a medevac in here first thing in tomorrow morning,” he said. “You’ll go back with the wounded ranger.”

I grimaced and mumbled a simple thank you.

Vincent left. I gulped the pain killers and stretched out on the cot. The hand seemed to hurt less if I held it on my chest. The capsules eased the pain enough that I could sleep for brief periods. When the throbbing became unbearable, I sat up and raised the hand over my head. This went on most of the night.

Shortly after dawn a UH-1B “Huey” helicopter swung down the valley and settled onto the runway just outside the main gate. The wounded soldier was loaded on board. I climbed awkwardly in beside him. The sight of the wounded man made me feel a bit embarrassed. He was obviously a lot worse off than I was.

The soldier had an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. A book of matches lay on the stretcher beside him. I fumbled with it and clumsily managed to light one. I held the flame to his cigarette. “You OK!” I shouted above the whine of the rotors. “Number one!” I patted his wrist and glanced down at the bloody bandage around his hip. He simply stared at me, his eyes glazed over from the combination of pain and medication.

When the “Huey” set down at the airfield in Hue, a Vietnamese ambulance whisked the wounded ranger away. The American crew chief helped me step out of the craft and then handed down my duffel bag. CHOP Kane was sitting nearby in the commo jeep, waiting to drive me back to the compound. I threw my bag in the back and then climbed into the passenger seat beside the chief operator.

Kane smirked. “Well, Oliveri… you may be a hot-shot radio operator, but you sure as hell ain’t much of a field soldier.”

I was too tired and in too much pain to let him provoke me. “Thanks, CHOP. You’re a real class act.”

We drove off to the dispensary in the advisors’ compound. My first contact with the enemy had ended, but not the way I had expected. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be my last.

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Christmas in Vietnam by Jim Oliveri

December 13, 2015 at 5:22 pm (Uncategorized)

 

During 1964, I served with a military advisory team based in the city of Quang Tri, South Vietnam, although we seldom spent much time there. Many of us were assigned to Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) outposts in the dreaded A Shau Valley. I was a radio operator, and usually just an American officer and I were attached to an ARVN unit, living in crude log bunkers along the Laotian border. We often spent weeks at a time in the Valley, subsisting on boiled rice and greens, and C-rations when we were lucky enough to get them.

The A Shau Valley was a primary infiltration point for North Vietnamese soldiers just beginning to travel south on the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” in Laos. Most mornings there started out sunny, but angry black clouds often boiled up by midday. Wild thunderstorms punctuated by violent flashes of lightning swept rapidly down the valley. Sheets of blowing rain fell for about an hour and then abruptly ceased. Afterward, the valley floor would literally steam for hours. It was eerie, almost supernatural. The A Shau was truly the most primeval place that I have ever seen.

And, of course, it didn’t help that we were subjected to frequent harassing attacks. Once I had been sent racing for the cover of a trench as bullets kicked up dust at my heels. Several times, in fact, I had ducked behind a mound of dirt to exchange fire with enemy snipers who blasted away at us from the cover of the thick undergrowth just outside the barbed-wire perimeter. I doubt that I ever hit anything, but it made me feel better to retaliate. On another occasion, an ARVN patrol was ambushed at sundown just outside the camp. I joined the relief team that extricated them from the trap, and helped carry a wounded soldier back to the medical bunker. By the time the holidays came, most of our group had endured seven or eight months of this sort of thing, and we were all looking forward to going home.

As Christmas week approached, it brought with it mixed emotions. We all came in from the field for a couple of days, one of the rare but much-cherished occasions when the entire team was together. Yet, this would be my first Yule away from my family, and I was feeling homesick. The penetrating heat of the dry season was gone, but it still seemed far too warm for Christmas. There was probably snow back home by now, I thought. To get everyone into the holiday spirit, we planned a big party for Christmas Eve.

My buddy Ken Keller and I went to the PX and bought beer, soda, pretzels, and a box of foot-long cigars that smelled like they were made from equal parts of stinkweed and horse manure. Two other radio operators, Richard Maxwell and Tony Thompson, purchased some hard liquor and additional snacks. We set up everything in the tiny cubicle that I shared with Thompson. The advisory team was housed in small, one story wooden barracks. Our room measured only about eight by ten feet, but that seldom mattered, since we were rarely there. It was going to be cramped, but we’d manage. We were all determined to make this a holiday to remember.

Just after dusk, we began to gather in the cubicle. We used Tony Thompson’s recorder to play a tape I’d recently received from my friend Richie, featuring many of the latest hit songs in the States. He used a clever disk-jockey style, complete with folksy chatter and one-liners. “And this song is dedicated to our boys in Vietnam,” it went. “Stay alert, guys, and don’t let any Viet Cong through the lines!” That drew a hearty laugh from us. If only Richie knew that there were no lines in Vietnam. The enemy was everywhere. That thought quickly flew out of my mind. There would be no time for negativity this night.

We enjoyed the tape so much that we played it over and over again. I opened the box of cigars and handed out a few. We lit up the unusual stogies and puffed away until the room filled with swirling clouds of rotten-smelling smoke. For some reason I found that hilarious and broke into uproarious laughter.

Keller opened a letter from his wife and read parts of it to us. We all savored this personal connection with home and normalcy. If anyone had a right to feel down that night it was certainly Ken, the only married man in the group. Yet here he was trying to cheer up the rest of us. I felt a glow of affection for the tall, lanky Ohio native. Thompson and Maxwell took out Christmas cards they had received from home and passed them around. It was a bittersweet moment, but we all felt better for sharing it. I guess maybe we were becoming a bit maudlin, because Keller finally cracked a joke to break the mood.

A knock on the door interrupted our raucous laughter. I opened it to find two Australian warrant officers, Dave Walner and Anthony Morrissey, standing in the hallway. Walner roared, “Merry Christmas, mate! Can we come in?”

I was delighted. “Hell, yes! Come on in and have a cigar! They stink so bad none of us want to smoke them anyway!”

We all liked the happy-go-lucky Aussies. They were always friendly and full of fun.  Although considered officers, many of them were actually career enlisted men, and felt more comfortable among us than with the American brass. Walner and Morrissey squeezed onto Tony’s bunk, opened cans of beer, and joined in the uproarious laughter. I sliced up a pepperoni I had gotten in a package from home and passed it around.

There was another rap on the door. Tony opened it this time and found a young Marine corporal and a PFC from the motor pool outside. “We heard you guys laughing,” said the Marine. “Sounds like you’re having a good time in here.”

Tony gestured toward the others. “Come on in!”

Between guffaws I bellowed across the room, “Hey Tony, you better leave the door open!”

Thompson brought out a fruitcake that his family had sent him and sliced it up with his bush knife. Nobody back home ever actually ate fruitcake, but here it was a welcome delicacy. I took a piece and thought that it was the best thing I had ever tasted. I guess Christmas can do that to you.

Before long, several more lonely advisors drifted in to share the holiday cheer. I looked around the room in disbelief. It was wall-to-wall GIs. I never would have imagined that our tiny cubicle could hold so many. Soldiers sat everywhere with their arms around each other’s shoulders, drinking beer, nibbling on the modest Yule fare, and just enjoying the fun. For one night, at least, the horrors of war were forgotten. At one point we spontaneously broke into a chorus of “Silent Night”. It was one of the most poignant Christmas moments I have ever experienced, before or since.

I reached over and grasped Ken’s hand. “Merry Christmas, buddy.”

He nodded gently.  “You, too, man. Let’s hope the next one will be in a better place.”

“Amen to that,” I replied.

As our party reached its peak, Viet Cong terrorists were carrying out an attack against U.S. personnel in Saigon. Two Communist agents disguised as ARVN soldiers drove an explosives-laden vehicle beneath the Brinks Hotel, where American officers were housed. A timing device triggered a powerful blast at 1745 hours, just when the building figured to be most crowded. Army personnel suffered two dead and fifty-eight wounded. When we heard about it the next day I felt quite guilty for having partied while that was happening. The war raged on, uninterrupted by the holiday or the humble celebration of a few homesick soldiers in Quang Tri thankful just to share some Christmas joy together.

 

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Fifty Things I’ve Learned About Life

May 12, 2015 at 2:27 am (Uncategorized)

Now that I’m in my seventies, I realize that I’ve learned many things through experience, some of which I wish I had known at an earlier age. That knowledge, had I acquired it sooner, would have helped to make my life more rewarding and more enjoyable, as well as strengthened my relationships. As a youth I learned much from my older relatives on both sides of the family. When I left for the army, it was my first real experience away from home. My drill sergeant became a sort of surrogate father. He taught a group of mostly nineteen and twenty year-olds not only how to be soldiers, but how to deal with life situations as well. And I continue to learn from friends and relatives to this day. The following, in no particular order, are Jim’s “life lessons”:

1. You can never go wrong by doing what you think is right.
2. Always have a good reason for everything you do.
3. Never take yourself too seriously.
4. Laugh a lot. Have a sense of humor. You’ll not only live longer, but you’ll be happier.
5. Don’t be too hard on yourself for your mistakes. We all make lots of them. That’s how we learn.
6. Cherish sincere compliments. Ignore insults.
7. March to your own drummer. Going along with the crowd is frequently not a good idea. Recognize that the “m” in “masses” is often silent.
8. Always reach for the stars. You may never actually get one, but at least you won’t end up with a handful of mud.
9. Never live your life by what other people think.
10. Be thankful for family. They always have your best interests at heart.
11. Pay it forward. Help others as you would like to be helped in similar circumstances.
12. Always put your children’s needs before your own.
13. Never, ever give up on anything.
14. Don’t be lazy or cut corners. There’s always one more thing that you can do.
15. Never let anyone change your mind if you think that you’re right.
16. Always do your absolute best at everything. You’re just cheating yourself otherwise.
17. Use every resource to get a good education. It may not always help you, but it won’t hurt, and you can never lose it.
18. Never be ashamed to say, “I love you”.
19. Don’t retaliate against those who do you wrong. That’s why karma exists.
20. Some people are not going to like you no matter what. Don’t waste time trying to please them.
21. Try to accomplish something positive every day.
22. Your job may be important, but your family is more so. Be sure to spend plenty of quality time with them.
23. Don’t listen to those who say something can’t be done.
24. Take the time to appreciate the little things in life.
25. Spend a few moments every day looking closely at nature.
26. Be a dreamer. They’re the ones who create everything we have.
27. Love your country. It’s the greatest that ever existed. You are not required to love your government.
28. Do something to earn the privileges this country has provided you.
29. Respect everyone’s opinion, as long as they realize that it is not necessarily the law of the land.
30. If you don’t have any enemies, then you’ve probably never taken a stance on anything.
31. Don’t be afraid to take a chance. One day you may regret not having done so.
32. Always follow your heart, but bring your brain along.
33. Protect and be kind to all children. They are truly our future.
34. Surround yourself with good people. Cut ties with those who aren’t.
35. Teach yourself to become comfortable speaking with people of all statures.
36. Get enough exercise to stay in good physical condition, but don’t obsess over it.
37. Be a positive role model for your children and grandchildren.
38. Never compromise your values.
39. Be confident in yourself; look people straight in the eye. Never allow anyone to intimidate you.
40. When an opportunity presents itself, don’t hesitate. You may not get another chance.
41. Always treat others as you would like to be treated. You can tell a lot about a person by the way he acts toward a waitress.
42. Never be ashamed to show your emotions.
43. Hug and kiss your loved ones often. We never know when it will be the last time.
44. Set clearly defined goals and work toward them regularly.
45. Take steps to save for the future. It will come much more quickly than you expect.
46. Always have a Plan A and a Plan B. People don’t plan to fail; they fail to plan.
47. Treasure your spouse. He or she will still be by your side when the nest is empty.
48. Find friends who make you laugh.
49. Be quick to praise, slow to condemn.
50. Be willing to concede that your ideas are not always the best ones.

I’m sure I’ll think of more, but that’s for another day.

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Karma or Divine Intervention?

May 7, 2014 at 4:34 am (Uncategorized)

In the spring of 1964 I was on my way out of Fort Dix for a thirty day leave before departing for Vietnam. As I left the barracks for the last time I noticed something lying on my bunk. Picking it up, I discovered that it was a religious card depicting Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. That was certainly appropriate, considering where I was headed. On the reverse side, my friend Eddie Naticha had written, “Jim, Best of luck till we meet again. Your friend, Eddie.”

Eddie and I had become buddies while attending radio school. He was about two years older than me, stocky with thinning blond hair and “Clark Kent” glasses. Eddie was a gentle soul with a warm smile who had served as an altar boy in his youth. I was in the class ahead of him, graduating about six weeks before he did. Eddie hadn’t gotten his new orders yet, but it was well known that most of us who completed the Intermediate Speed Radio Operators Course (ISROC) were destined for shipment to Vietnam.

Eddie’s thoughtful gesture touched me. He knew that I was going into harm’s way and might need a bit of divine intervention at some point. However, I wasn’t able to thank him personally because he was in class that morning and I was leaving for home. I put the card in my pocket and later stored it in the duffle bag that would accompany me overseas.

Going off to war had created serious new concerns for me that pushed communication with my friends far down the list of priorities. As a result, I never saw or heard from Eddie again. However, the image of Saint Jude, along with my John F. Kennedy silver half dollar and my Saint Christopher medal may have played a part in bringing me back safely from war-torn Vietnam. Who am I to discount karma like that? Today, the coin and the “Mister” Christopher medal (he’s no longer celebrated as a saint on the church calendar) are long gone, but the Saint Jude card sits framed on the desk in my office. I even used it during my Dad’s eulogy to demonstrate how many of us believe we will again meet our loved ones who have passed on.

Recently I began wondering what had become of Eddie. I can’t explain why that was suddenly important to me after so many years. It may just be that as we grow older those things begin to matter to us once again. Anyway, I Googled Eddie’s name and found an Edward Naticha from Staten Island. That must be him, I thought. I recalled that Eddie had lived in New York when we were in the Army. Digging further, I was stunned to learn that Eddie Naticha had passed away in 1987 at the age of forty-seven.

Almost all my childhood friends have passed on, so I understand what it is to endure that sort of loss. Yet, Eddie’s death affected me for a far different reason. I had never reciprocated by thanking him for his thoughtful gift. Neither had I contacted him to wish him Godspeed in his own journey. I began to wonder if those actions could possibly have transmitted some form of negative karma to Eddie, contributing to his early demise. Unlikely, I suppose, but how can I ever prove otherwise? I had looked up to Eddie almost the way I would have to an older brother. Now here I was at an age twenty-four years beyond what he had reached. Life can certainly be strange that way.

I wrestled with those thoughts for a few nights until I was finally able to come to terms with them. Truth be told, I seem to have come to terms with many of the events from my military days. I now know that I believe in karma and divine intervention much more strongly than I did previously. Perhaps they’re even one and the same. I just wish that I could have reached those conclusions before my friend Eddie Naticha passed away. It would have been nice to have seen him one more time.

Till we meet again, Eddie.

 

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Marital Bliss

September 25, 2013 at 2:46 am (Uncategorized)

After 53 years of matrimony, I’m now more convinced than ever that I know absolutely nothing about women. Let me explain why.

One morning last weekend, I walked into the kitchen where Maureen was working and gave her a big hug and a kiss. She batted her eyelashes and smiled so happily that I was convinced I had earned some valuable brownie points. Alas, I had completely misread the situation, as usual. With an evil snicker she produced from behind her back… a toilet bowl brush! The “Sergeant Major” assigned me to latrine duty! Dang. Properly chastened, I retreated to the master bathroom, where I sought out my friend John, hoping that he would take pity on me. Needless to say, there was no compassion forthcoming from that cold, heartless lump. I performed my custodial duties in silence and solitude.

Now, believe me when I tell you that I’ve never quite understood how married women can often be so indifferent to their long-suffering husbands. Last week I said to Maureen, “I’ve gotta go to the VA tomorrow.”

She rolled her eyes and sighed. “What’s wrong with you this time?”

“Oh, nothing much. My left leg fell off and I have to get it reattached. I thought maybe you’d like to take a ride and keep me company.”

“Very funny,” she said with a scowl. “Do I have to?”

Now I had her. “Well, there’s a casino right across the road. We could stop there after my appointment,” I smirked proudly.

“OK,” she responded. “I’ll go.”

AHA! I knew it! My male superiority had finally triumphed! Who did she think she was dealing with, a child?

“But you’ll have to give me money to gamble.”

Egad! Disaster! Why in the world do I keep shooting myself in the foot like that? How does a mere female consistently outmaneuver me, a dues-paying member of the dominant sex?

In addition to being caring and very shrewd, my wife is also highly complimentary. The other morning we were going out to breakfast. As we got in the car she said casually, “Your deodorant smells like bug spray.”  Well excuuuuuuuse me! At least there wouldn’t be any flies circling my armpits as I dipped into the oatmeal.

While we ate she told me that I needed to get some new underwear. Isn’t that what all married couples talk about when they go out to eat? “What?” I whined. “But I just bought some two years ago.”

“They’re ‘golf’ shorts,” she sneered. “They’ve got 18 holes in them. And while we’re on the subject, you better replace your ‘baseball socks’ too. They’ve got 12 runs in them. Let’s go to Penney’s. I can buy some things, too, while we’re there.”

Nice. And guess who was expected to pick up that tab? What chance do I have against a steel-trap mind like that? And where the heck was I going to put the new stuff, considering that the only drawer in the bedroom not crammed with her things is a tiny one in the night stand? (I was tempted to write, in the “drawers drawer,” but you know how I hate inane puns!) Anyway, she said, “You’ll manage,” now obviously sympathetic to my plight. “There’s the desk in your office.” Oh. Great idea. Why didn’t I think of that?

But after pouting, uh… racking my brain for several hours, I finally figured out how to get the best of her. She’s been after me to exercise more, so I started going to the gym three days a week. I don’t actually work out, mind you. I just hang around for a couple of hours and watch the women jiggle! Heh-heh. At long last I’ve gotten the upper hand over those blasted females! Er, what? I have to use a machine or leave? Hey, you can’t give me the bum’s rush! You don’t know who you’re dealing with! What the………….

 

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What If…

September 7, 2012 at 3:28 pm (Uncategorized)

Have you ever wondered what your life might have been like if you had made some different choices through the years? I’m not usually one to deal in hypotheticals, but this particular subject got me thinking, and it’s driving me bananas.

I sometimes wonder what I would be doing today if I hadn’t been ignominiously booted out of college and gone into the army. I often kid my family that I could have been a general by now if I had stayed in the service. That’s highly improbable, given my penchant for landing in hot water with my superior officers. General? Permanent duty as a latrine orderly would have been much more likely. But then again… you never know.

Now think about this. What if you hadn’t married that wonderful spouse you now have, or that miserable so-and-so you were only too happy to ditch? How would your life be different today? Choosing a fantastic wife was one thing I did right. Our four kids and their spouses have given us eight wonderful grandchildren so far. But what if I had gotten it all wrong? Maybe I wouldn’t have any of them, at least not as they are now. Sheesh. Thinking about this stuff can make you cagootz.

Career decisions can be sticky as well. Do you ever wonder if you might have left that last job right before you were due for a big promotion? Or what if you had been fortunate enough to quit not knowing that you were about to get the axe? How about that great offer you turned down to stay where you were? What if you missed out on a great opportunity? Aaargh… My head is starting to spin again.

Unfortunately, there’s no owner’s manual for life. It tends to come at us rather quickly, and as a result we all make some bad decisions. If you were very lucky, you may have had a caring mentor who gave you some good early guidance. I’m not sure that my kids always bought in to what I was selling, but there were three hackneyed old sayings I used regularly to advise them while they were growing up. One was, “Do the right thing”. Another was, (and they REALLY grew to hate this), “You wanna play, you gotta pay!” They still roll their eyes when they hear that one! But what if they hadn’t listened?

Much of what we learn comes through time-consuming and sometimes painful personal experience. When I was still in New York, I worked briefly in Boro Park, a Hasidic section of Brooklyn. I became friends with a local rabbi, who was one of my customers. We were having a discussion one day about life, and I’ll never forget the good rabbi’s words. Shaking his head sadly, he said, “You know, we grow too soon old and too late shmart.” How prophetic! It wasn’t until I reached retirement age and became perfect that I realized how right he was!

So make those decisions carefully, my friends. There are few mulligans in life. But don’t beat yourselves up if things don’t always turn out well. We all have some clunkers on our resumes. By the way, that third trite bit of wisdom I offered my children was “Never give up!” If life knocks you down, you must get back up and fight even harder. After all, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger – and better.

I learned the wisdom of those words by making my own bad decisions, and plenty of them. Many of those came about because in my youthful arrogance I ignored some good advice. As youngsters we tend to think we’re smarter than our elders and therefore many of us are doomed to endure agonizing mistakes that probably could have been avoided if we had just listened. Some of us eventually learn not to make the same bad choices again, and unfortunately, some don’t.

In reality, there’s no way to know what our lives would have been like had we done a few things differently. But it certainly can be interesting to wonder! In the long run we’re all probably better off just being content with the way things turned out. Hey, it could have been a lot worse.

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The Night I Almost Fought Ali

August 21, 2012 at 3:07 pm (Uncategorized)

This ranks way up there on my personal list of really dumb ideas.

During the mid-seventies Maureen and I attended a number of Kiwanis district conventions as representatives of my club. These were usually held during late summer in the upstate New York Catskill Mountains at one of the popular resorts that made up the “Borscht Belt.” This particular year, I think it was 1975, we were enjoying the food, fun and entertainment at the Concord Hotel. And, oh yes… I even found time to participate in several of the workshops held for the benefit of incoming Kiwanis officers.

It just so happened that while we were there heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali was training at the Concord for his next title defense. Ali was then well past his prime and deep into his “Bum of the Month” campaign, during which he took frequent fights against badly over-matched challengers who represented very little physical threat and had no real chance of defeating him.

Anyway, one evening after dinner Maureen and I went down to the hotel basement where Ali’s entourage had set up a boxing ring in a large room that seated perhaps 200 curious spectators. Other training paraphernalia was clustered nearby. We found chairs along the left side of the ring and settled in to watch the workout, something probably few of us had ever seen before.

The Champ was in the midst of a spirited session on the speed bag, and the room echoed with the rat-a-tat of his punches. Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, stood off to the side intently monitoring a stop watch. Dundee called out, “TIME!” and Ali immediately ceased jabbing the bag. The crowd applauded politely. The Champ rested briefly but remained on his feet, casually shadow boxing to keep from cooling down. After about five minutes of this, he resumed the workout by beginning to pound the heavy bag hanging in a corner. Now the room echoed with the THUD-THUD of his powerful punches. After a few minutes of this, the trainer again called “TIME!” and Ali backed away from the cumbersome bag. The spectators clapped warmly.

Next followed a routine with Ali passing a medicine ball back and forth to assistant trainer Drew “Bundini” Brown, a bear of a man who wrote many of the humorous phrases Ali used to taunt his opponents. The most famous of these was, Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee. Each man grunted loudly as the medicine ball whacked into his midsection. After several minutes of this they dropped the heavy ball to the floor and The Champ briefly rested again without sitting. To me it seemed that Ali’s ample stomach still needed lots more attention.

Truthfully, he didn’t appear to be working all that hard. Considering the caliber of his next opponent, maybe he didn’t have to. I can’t recall who was coming up on the schedule, but I’m sure it was some inept “tomato can”, the type of opponent that Ali was so fond of fighting near the end of his career as his skills began to fade.

That seemed to be the end of the formal workout. Here’s where things began to get really interesting. Angelo Dundee turned to the crowd with a broad grin on his face and announced, “Would anyone like to come up and spar with The Champ?”

I was on my feet in a flash. What an opportunity! Someday I could tell my awestruck grandchildren that Poppy had once gotten into the ring with the great Muhammad Ali! I began to step toward the aisle but suddenly felt myself yanked violently backward. I turned to find Maureen with a death grip on my belt and a “Where do you think you’re going?” look on her face. By the time I regained my balance a young waiter had jumped ahead of me and climbed through the ropes to face Ali. Sadly, the waiter would now be the one with a great tale to tell HIS grandchildren while I was left to ponder what might have been. I turned, glared at my wife and sat down with a pout.

A healthy ego might dictate at this point that I offer something macho about how bitterly disappointed I was. Fortunately, my ego is just a little one. While there may have been a bit of regret, I quickly realized after a moment’s consideration that I actually felt relieved. What the hell had I been thinking? I wasn’t looking to be humiliated, and I certainly didn’t want Ali to kill me! With that in mind, I turned back to see what was happening in the ring.

Ali smiled as the waiter assumed an awkward boxing stance. Mine would have been far better, of course! The Champ made a great pretense of winding up to throw a haymaker, carefully keeping his distance from the young man, who looked like he might take a swing at Ali if he could get close enough. They circled around the middle of the ring several times without actually doing anything before a laughing Bundini finally rang the bell and an amused Dundee stepped in to raise the young man’s hand in victory. The crowd went wild.

Looking back, I like to laughingly delude myself that I “woulda moidered da bum.” But in truth I’m quite grateful that Maureen kept me from making an ass of myself, at least on that occasion. Recalling this incident never fails to bring a smile to my face even all these years later. And I’m still pondering what, if anything, I can tell my grandkids about the zany night I almost got to fight Muhammad Ali.

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Memorial Day Remembrances

May 23, 2012 at 3:47 pm (Uncategorized)

 

Each year at this time as we pause to celebrate Memorial Day, my many vivid recollections of Vietnam resurface once again.  With them comes the understanding that perhaps we as a nation are losing sight of the true significance of this solemn holiday.  First conceived as “Decoration Day” in 1868 to honor our Civil War dead, Memorial Day has more recently come to be recognized as the unofficial beginning of the summer barbecue season.  My own memories, however, tend to leave me somewhat subdued rather than celebratory on the last Monday in May, at least until the parade is over and the first hamburger begins to sizzle on the grill.

Going off to the military is something of a tradition in my family.  I was born while my father served in the Army Air Corps during World War II.  My father-in-law flew fifty missions as a B-17 tail gunner over Europe and North Africa.  One of my uncles fought at the “Battle of the Bulge”, and another in Korea.  In fact, most of my male relatives served “Uncle Sam” at one time or another in various corners of the globe.  And we weren’t always good soldiers, either.  During World War I, one of my uncles was slapped into a ball and chain by the Navy for desertion.  But the unspoken rule was that we had to show up.  So when the growing conflict in Southeast Asia drew me in during the mid-sixties, I grudgingly shouldered my share of the burden in keeping with the family custom.

I arrived in the Republic of Vietnam in the spring of 1964 as an apprehensive twenty-year-old Army private.  There were just 16,000 Americans in-country at the time, and I was not particularly enthusiastic about being one of them.  That May, a one year tour of duty seemed like an eternity, with the end a lifetime away.

The Army immediately assigned me to an advisory team located in the I Corps tactical area, which comprised the provinces lying directly below the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam.  I was based in the peaceful and beautiful city of Hue, but spent relatively little time there.  My primary duty was to serve as a radio operator at the remote outposts along the Laotian border manned by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).  Most of them had little-known and exotic names. But vicious fighting in the coming years would soon make Khe Sanh, Lang Vei, and the A Shau Valley practically household words.

I was fortunate to have missed most of the heaviest fighting.  Much of my combat experience consisted of brief sniping engagements or small unit actions.  However, I was part of the relief force sent to secure the shattered Special Forces camp at Nam Dong, where Captain Roger Donlon won the first Medal of Honor awarded in Vietnam.  I helped build sandbag emplacements after North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked American destroyers at sea, precipitating the now-controversial Tonkin Gulf incident that led to a widened war.  I saw the first Allied aircraft fly low overhead on their way to bomb North Vietnam.  And I watched the initial U.S. Marine combat units come ashore, blissfully unaware of the fate awaiting them in the bloody days ahead.

Many have questioned the value of what we did in Vietnam.  For me, there was never any doubt.  I saw the relief etched on the faces of simple people who appreciated the security our presence provided.  I delighted in the laughing children who followed the Americans everywhere, begging for money, food, and cigarettes.  I watched groups of primitive montagnards wait patiently in remote villages to be examined by teams of Green Beret medics.  For most of them this was the first and only medical treatment they would ever receive.

I have always taken special pride in my Vietnam service, even when it was not fashionable to do so.  Unfortunately, that pride was all too often met with indifference.  I never experienced the outright hostility reserved for those who followed me, but, like them, I seldom spoke much about the war or my views on it.  Today, my intense disdain for anti-war protesters is long gone, with one or two notable exceptions.  And I am mightily pleased to see how well our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are treated. The attitude toward Vietnam vets is now so different, too. Not a day passes when I go out wearing my “Vietnam Veteran” hat that someone doesn’t stop me to say, “Thanks for your service,” or “Welcome home”. Those moments to me are golden, and they never grow old.

I still cherish the memories of the American, Vietnamese, and Australian friends I made in Southeast Asia.  My closest Vietnamese pal was a young corporal named Troung, who served as an aide to the American advisors at camp Lang Vei.  We took great delight in playing practical jokes on Troung, and teasing him about his distaste for American food.  Troung openly admired my blue and silver Combat Infantry Badge, so I gave it to him when I finally left for home.  Lang Vei was subsequently overrun by North Vietnamese tanks during the Tet Offensive in 1968.  I often wonder if Troung was among the handful of survivors.  And I still regret that in the rush to go home I neglected to get the addresses of my good Australian buddy, Dave Walner, or my captain, Ed Walsh.

Many of the finest people I have ever known are Vietnam veterans.  Most went off to do their duty, and then returned home to lead full and productive lives.  Our society today is laced with “Nam” vets whose achievements should thoroughly debunk the once-commonly accepted image of them as “baby-killers” and drug addicts.  In truth, the only baby-killers I ever saw were on the other side.  Oh, there’s no denying that there were some rotten apples in the barrel, as there are in all armies.  The horror of My Lai attests to that.  But the vast majority of our Vietnam veterans represent the best America has to offer.

As for those who did not return, I have personal memories of them as well.  There was my young aviator friend whose light observation plane was shot down and whose body was never recovered.  He left behind a wife and an infant son he never saw.  And the lieutenant who was killed by a grenade during his second week in-country.  Or the career Special Forces sergeant whose bunk I used while he was out on the patrol that ultimately claimed his life.  I haven’t forgotten.  I say, “God bless them all”.

This May 28th, as Americans light their barbecues and chill their beverages, they could do well to pause, remember, and give thanks for the brave, dedicated men and women whose sacrifices helped pay for the freedom we enjoy.  Perhaps then we’ll all better understand the true significance of Memorial Day.

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