The driveway into Mike Lauricella’s property outside Niles, Michigan is easy to find because there is an old motorcycle wheel mounted above his mailbox. Mike closed down his cycle business several years ago but still has the workshop.
Jim Vipond, a Vietnam buddy, had made the long drive down from Kalkaska to meet me at Mike’s place, and they both walk out of the shop as I drive up. The three of us go inside and sit on folding chairs in the middle of the motorcycle workshop, where Mike has set up the slide projector he bought in Vietnam.
Mike is quick to tell me that there are certain things they will not talk about. Jim nods in agreement.
The projector rattles and complains like a typical old veteran. Once it topples over, but returns to duty as if it were built to be kicked around. Mike narrates the pictures of cannon crews, heliborne operations with the infantry, tanks operating around LZ Sherry, and shots of the firebase taken from helicopters showing hooches and gun emplacements. The pictures seem to transport him back to LZ Sherry.
When I got in country, I got there in September of 1969, everybody talked about the death moon, and I did not know what that was. It’s a full moon. That was the night that was most dreaded. And sure enough when the full moon was out we were in trouble. It seemed like we were always getting hit on a full moon. I do not know why the gooks liked full moons, but it just seemed like every full moon we got hit. I’m not sure, but it might have had something to do with the Buddhist religion.
I am at LZ Sherry less than 30 days when this bulldozer gets stuck that the engineers brought out to rebuild our berm. The berm was too low along the road that came into the battery out by the helipad. The guy running it was a young guy just like us. He got through the top layer of dirt, more like sand, and the dozer started to sink. It kept sinking and sinking and sinking. It sunk halfway into the ground.
We had two tanks on our perimeter, and we hooked both of them to the bulldozer with a chain. The two of them side by side tried to pull the dozer up and it pulled the clevis right off the back of the tank. So they gave up – for that day. It was getting late and the tank was outside the wire, so First Sergeant Durant says we’ve got to pull guard duty on the bulldozer.
Paul Dunne and I got the guard duty on that thing. We sat on it all night taking four hour shifts. The guys on guard duty in the towers watched us to make sure nothing happened. Well we are outside the wire, outside the berm, and I am scared shitless. It’s pitch black and Paul is saying, “Do you see anything?” It was pitch black; you couldn’t see anything. We sat on that stupid thing all night. That was my first experience of not liking what I was doing. That is also how Paul Dunne and I became very good friends – for that short period of time.
Mike puts a slide on the screen showing a demolished jeep.
That’s the jeep Paul got killed in. There’s a bad story about that. What happened was, they picked people for detail to go on a convoy to Phan Thiet. Paul was not supposed to be on the convoy that day, I was.
Paul came over and said, “Mike, you are scheduled to go on the convoy, but I want to go and call my mom at the MARS station” (Military Auxiliary Radio System).
I said, “No, because I’m scheduled to go on the convoy, I will get anything you want from the PX, just let me know, I’ll get it.”
He said, “I want to go on the convoy and call my mom at the MARS station.”
I still said no, so he left and came back with an E-6 sergeant – I don’t remember his name and don’t want to remember it – and the sergeant said, “Paul really wants to call his mom. Let him take your place on the convoy.” And he talked me into it. Three hours later they hit the mine. So he was never even supposed to be on that convoy.
Paul got killed on November 19 and there were no convoys after that until just before Christmas. We were out of beer and someone decided we had to do a convoy.
When the time for the convoy came, First Sergeant Durant, the Chief of Smoke and I went and swept the road. I volunteered to mine sweep the road because Paul got killed.
It was kind of funny because I had never swept for road mines before. We came out with no shirt, nothing metal, and there was a box on your hip, it was a battery box, and the wire came up from it to a set of headphones, and another wire came out from the headphones down to the sweeper handle. But you did not walk regular. You walked stiff legged. You walk like this.
Mike gets up from his chair and demonstrates a kind of Frankenstein lurch.You work that minesweeper back and forth. You better step where you’ve already swept. You sweep it and then you step. You did not carry a firearm, you did not wear your steel pot. The earphones were big and bulky, and they were hot, and you broke out in a sweat, at least I did.
I am sweeping and the Jeep is behind me and there are three guys out on each side of the road. Then I keep seeing dust pop up on the road, and I think it’s these little sand bugs. I pull the earphones off and it’s small arms fire. Our guys were already firing back and yelling at me, but I can’t hear them I’ve got these ear phones on, and I’m going down the road thinking the sand bugs are popping up in front of me.
We call the gunships, and then go on with the convoy. I didn’t do the whole road, I just did a little section. We did find a mine in the road and we blew it. I laugh about it now, but I was scared to death.
I don’t remember if I ever went out on another mine sweep. All I know was somebody had lost their life, and on that day if anybody was going to get blown up was going to be me. It all stemmed from the fact that Paul and I swapped places and Paul never should’ve been on that convoy. I should never have let that sergeant talk me into making the switch. But he was an E-6, and what was I going to do?
Jim says, “We swept the road for mines, and we tried several different things. There was a point in time where we just took the vehicle and drove like hell. Hopefully if it set anything off we would be on past it before it blew up. And that did work! That’s how they mine-swept the road rather than sending somebody out there to lose their life as a minesweeper.
This is the first in a series of interviews with men who served with my artillery battery in Vietnam. Most were just teenagers, many away from home for the first time. Their stories will appear in the upcoming book: The Boys of Battery B
The front door is open, and by the time I reach the porch he is waiting for me behind the storm door. The pictures of him in Vietnam show a sliver of a boy, but he now carries another 80 pounds or so and walks bent over with a high-tech cane. Three back surgeries have put him in his easy chair for most of the day, where he grieves for his wife of 46 years, recently taken by a stroke. He needs morphine and oxycodone every few hours for the back pain. Exposure to Agent Orange added diabetes and early Parkinson’s to his daily physical concerns. We talk for over an hour, his voice soft, somewhere out of the south, with a gentle humor baked into it.
I was the only medic at LZ Sherry. It was my job to burn the shit. The 1st sergeant a lot of times sent me people to do it who he was pissed that. It was something bad for them to do, but it was okay for me. It was my job to make sure that the latrines were dug and not overused and that the two toilets were taken care of and everything buried properly and burned properly. None of it ever got burned properly, because you did not want to stand out there all day watching it burn.
Another job I had was giving out malaria pills at the lunch meal, every day. There was one for one type of mosquito, and one for another type of mosquito. The ones we give out was the big orange ones. Guys did not want to take them. They were big and hard to swallow, and they gave some guys diarrhea. I made them swallow them right there in front of me. Otherwise some guys would go and throw them away. But you took them every day. I think it was every day.
Did you know LZ Sherry was built on a cemetery? The battery was built on the cemetery because it was the highest point in the area, even though it was only a few feet. Part of the cemetery was still there when I got to Sherry in October of 1968. Two or three of those little houses that they put the bodies in were still there. They were not there very long because when the Viet Cong came up we could not fire our guns in certain places because of those houses were in the way. They had already leveled a lot of them and they got rid of the rest just after I got there. That’s one of the reasons why the people in that area didn’t care for us too much, because we leveled their cemetery.
There were some trees and bushes that they also had to get out of there. Somebody got an old 20 mm gun and they used it to blow down trees. It worked! I don’t know if you ever tried to cut one of them teak trees, but it is just like sawing into cement.
I was one of the first ones out there to get a Purple Heart. We were taking incoming and my hooch was about three quarters of the way sunk into the ground, you had to go up and out. It was all sandbagged in and everything but that mortar came right down through and got me in the leg. But I can’t remember which leg it was now. It wasn’t nothing big, it was just a little bitty cut, but it bled like hell. I did not go to the rear and get it fixed up, it was not that bad. The 1st sergeant and the captain got their heads together and decided that it was going to get me a Purple Heart. But I knew nothing about it, absolutely nothing about it. We had a parade ceremony back in Phan Rang where they took us all out and had us stand at parade. They called my name out and I thought, Oh crap, what did I do? I got up there and he gives me the Purple Heart, and I could not remember even being hit. It was that minor. They give me the Purple Heart, and then they give me the Army Commendation Medal.
When I first got to Sherry I kept hearing bumblebees going around in the area. The first time I heard one of those I said to the 1st sergeant, “What is that noise I keep hearing?”
He says, “What noise?”
And I says, “Zzzzzzzzzz ……..zzzzzzzzzzzzz. But I don’t see anything.”
And he says, “They are shooting at you, you dumb ass.”
We got shot at all the time. The VC would sit on that tree line out there which was a good thousand meters out, or they would sneak up and down those ditches out there, and they shoot at us. Throw bullets at us, hoping to hit something. To the best of my knowledge nobody ever got hit by one.
I say, “Where you out at Sherry during the January ground attack?”
There’s a whole story to that. When things were quiet I was supposed to be in the Fire Direction Center, in case we took rounds and somebody got hurt. So they decided that if Doc was going to be in there, that Doc was going to help. I did weather charts because they found out that I could do it fast enough.
“Putting meteorological data into the firing charts was the worse job in FDC,” I say. Nobody wanted to do it.”
I know and I learned to stay away from FDC because of that. I would go visit with the tank guys. We had three or four tanks on the perimeter. They brought them in because one of them had a bad pack in it. The pack was the whole engine compartment, in a package. They pulled the pack out, and the tank was down for two weeks I think. They put that new engine in, and we got hit by a sapper team that night right on top of that tank. Right on top. I was in there playing poker with them when the two guys that were on duty at the time saw the gooks in the wire. They called over to FDC that we had gooks in the wire. Right away I got my ass back to FDC where I belonged. It was not too far from that tank and my hooch was just the other side. By the time I did that it was all over. The tank fired and killed all the sappers. That was the first time we got hit by sappers that I know of.
I pull out pictures taken the next morning of the dead sappers, which I got from Andy Kach. The bodies have been pulled from the wire and are lined up on the ground. A part of a body, later known as head-and-shoulders, is still in the wire. There are also pictures of the rifles and rockets they carried. I say, “I do not show these to people.”
No, me neither. I have seen the body pictures but not the weapons. I had to be out there at the wire the next morning where the bodies were; it was part of my job.
He pauses, longer than usual.
Yeah, it brings back a lot of memories.
They give those guys all Bronze Stars on the tank. I did not get one and I was pissed. I said so too.
Why not you?
Probably because I wasn’t even supposed to be out there. This was a tank and they had their own medic.
“I have heard stories of 1st Sergeant Farrell. You must have some of your own.”
Farrell probably saved my life. It was when the road crew got hit when they were sweeping the road. They were probably about a mile out from LZ Sherry, maybe a little bit more. I was burning shit at the time, when I heard an explosion and looked up and could see the smoke over the tree line. And I knew something had happened but I didn’t know what. And then all of a sudden I saw a Jeep come flying up the track towards the firebase screaming and yelling, “Doc, Doc, get over here.”
Well I ran and grabbed my bag. And jumped on the jeep and they took me out there. I got out of the jeep and was walking along the side of the road. The 1st sergeant said, “Doc! Stop! Watch where you’re walking.”
And I stopped.
He said, “You can’t walk over there. Walk on the hardpan.”
I came close to stepping on one of those bombs that when you step on it all the little bombs pop up in the air. I almost stepped on it. The Viet Cong picked up artillery rounds and bombs that never exploded and buried them as mines. There was enough explosives in this one it would have blown my leg off.
But I had to take care of Gulley. He was blown away from here down.
Tom places his hand at his rib cage.
There was nothing there. Nothing. It was gone. His one arm was gone. And he was still alive. Well I wrapped his arm for him, because he saw it. Told him he was going to be all right, that was all I could tell him, you know. I still have dreams about that. But there was nothing I could do, absolutely nothing I could do. There was nothing there to do anything with. You know what I mean? But he hung in there for a good 20 minutes. It took that much time, and he was still alive.
He is silent for a long moment.
The way …. the way … he was blown, it must have constricted the blood flow, enough to keep him alive. He had enough blood in him to keep him alive apparently. Sherlock was already dead. He was gone. There was nothing we could do for him.
They were not the only ones I saw when I was there. I saw a couple of Vietnamese that they brought in and wanted me to fix up. They were already dead.
Judson and another guy they took right down to the helipad at Sherry because they had a helicopter coming in. I did not treat either one of them. I didn’t talk to them or anything. They just sent them right on through because they were mostly superficial wounds.
I say, “Were you the only medic there?”
I was the only medic, but when they say you’re the only medic it means the only one trained to be a medic. But you had people like 1st Sergeant Farrell and there was an E7 sergeant there. They had enough experience that they were just as good a medic as I was. So I really wasn’t alone. You were never alone over there. Everybody had your back. Farrell was a little different, but I’ll tell you what, he was all business when he was business. He was 100% business. He was a good 1st sergeant.
Farrell slept in the same hooch with the XO, 1st Lieutenant Monaghan. It was the beginning of the wet season, the rainy season, so it must have been around June or July. I remember because that’s about the time I went to the rear. The rain came at 5 o’clock every day, you could count on it. And it rained so hard you could not see. One night Monaghan – a big guy – went in his hooch to crawl in bed. We all had mosquito netting, especially during the wet season. He crawls into bed and pulls the mosquito netting around him and feels this movement. He did not know what it was. He pulls back his sheet and there is a six-foot cobra in bed with him. My hooch was next to his, and all I heard was a .45 pistol going off. Boom. Boom. Boom-boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Farrell was there and had to stop him. I don’t think Monaghan ever did kill the snake. I don’t remember seeing the snake afterward, so I don’t think he ever did kill the snake. But he sure put a lot of holes in his bunk.
B battery guys always stuck together. I don’t know if you ever heard of Inge are not, we called him Ing. He was a big old farm boy from Nebraska or some place like that. He and I went to Phan Rang for training on how to build slit trenches for latrines. It was a three day pass is what it was. You went to school for a couple hours, then you was on your own for the rest of the day. We went up to the Air Force NCO club, which you needed to be an E4 to get in there, and we were both E4s. We got in there just before happy hour. We were drinking doubles, Canadian Club, and we were drinking them as fast as we could because they were only a dime. We got so smashed that I don’t remember the end of it. But I woke up in the morning with my eye all black and blue, and my nose bent all over the place, and I looked over to the bunk next to me where Ing was and he had this big old popper on one side, and half a popper on the other side. I said, “What in the hell happened to you?”
He said, “Me? You ought to see yourself.”
And then a couple of guys who were there told us what happened. We picked a fight. We did it to ourselves. We picked this fight, but we was so drunk we could not fight no how. These guys cleaned our clock I guess.
You know I helped deliver a baby at Sherry. South Vietnamese troops were stationed all the way around us. There was more than a company of them. They had their wives and families right there with them. One of the women got ready to have her baby, and she was having a little bit of trouble. The Vietnamese doctor was there, but they did not trust him so they called me. I knew that much about delivering babies.
He holds his thumb and forefinger together letting through just a little light.
We had a short course in it, and that was about it. Well I went over there, but the Vietnamese doctor delivered it. I just stood behind him giving a little suggestion here and there. “Why don’t you move that hand” or “Pull back that leg,” stuff like that. It went fast. Hell, she already had six kids. Mama-san, she was my friend the rest of the time I was out there.
Like I said, the South Vietnamese infantry was all around us on the berm. The went from where the road come into the battery all the way around to the ammo bunker. They decided they were going to put a sweep on one day. They mustered out by the old helicopter pad and then started across the rice field going towards Phan Thiet. They got about a third of the way across that field and the Viet Cong opened up from that tree line. You never saw such a bookin’ in your life. The sons-of-bitches bailed their asses out of there and they come right back into the battery. My opinion is they worked for both teams, most of them, depending upon what was going on at the time.
“How did you get to be a medic?”
It’s funny. When I was in the process of being drafted I was married. I got married young, I was 18. I told them my wife was pregnant. A friend of mine told me to tell them that. They didn’t take me that time, but eight weeks later they called up and said they were going to take me. So I volunteered and went in as RA, Regular Army. I had my choice of MPs or Medics and I thought, Well oh hell, medics are in the hospital.
I didn’t know there were field medics.
Before that I was going to go into the Navy as a chemical analysis specialist. But I got a reckless driving ticket and it takes about a year to clear your records, and they could not take me for that school because it needed a Top Secret clearance. I ended up with a Top Secret anyway because I filled out the paperwork and was going to go as a helicopter pilot. But my wife talked me out of it because a friend said pilots get killed and she talked me out of it at the last minute. But in the in-between time I got my Top Secret clearance. And I used it several times in the service, three or four times at Sherry. When the 1st sergeant and the captain were both on convoy to Phan Thiet, the first lieutenant in charge at the time, Monaghan, had a Secret clearance but not a Top Secret clearance. So he had to come and get me and I had to translate the Top Secret messages. He was not allowed to get into that book.
Not long after Gulley and Sherlock I got sent back to the rear, to the battalion aid station in Phan Rang. I didn’t know jack about anything. But when important things came up that had to be done, the first sergeant helped me out a lot. I was lucky I didn’t have to do too much. We were still in that grey area where we didn’t keep good records; everybody was free to get along as long as they did what they were supposed to do. I was not like it was here in the states, that’s for sure. We lived a different story back then.
Things were not done the proper way. A lot of the medical records were out on the firebases. Instead of being brought to the battalion aid station in Phan Rang and having them there, they were out on the firebases. And even the ones that we did have were not kept up. They did not have any information in them. We treated guys every day but we were not writing down who we were treating and what we were treating them for. Nobody did it. When I got there I started doing it because I found out that we were supposed to. But before that nobody did it. There was never an IG inspection the whole time the battery was in Vietnam. There was nobody to be accountable to. Everything got lax. Sloppy.
Right before I went home, the secretary for the headquarters battery said that I was put in for the Bronze Star. You know they give all E6s and above Bronze Stars back then. But they declined it because I was only an E5.
It didn’t make me any difference anyway. All I wanted was a trip home. I had a six month old daughter that I never seen. She was born while I was over there. She was almost seven months old when I went home. And the first time she saw me, she didn’t want nothin’ to do with me. You know what I mean. But by the end of that day she was in my lap and did not want to have anything to do with her mom.
I ask about Agent Orange around LZ Sherry.
They did not spray it actually on top of us but they sprayed around us. They would come in from Titty Mountain area and then go from Phan Thiet towards the jungle. I think they were just trying to take down that tree line out there. All I know is I remember them spraying it. And then it blew across the battery. Just like when we got gassed a couple of times, it blew right across the battery. The Agent Orange got sprayed once or twice. They sprayed that stuff in a lot of places in that country that they did not want to admit, because they did not want to pay for the crops. I got Parkinson’s and I have diabetes both, and both they say were caused by Agent Orange. Just about anybody that was in country was exposed to it. That stuff had a half-life. Just because they sprayed it here today, does not mean it is gone tomorrow. You stop and think how much of that stuff they sprayed around, it got in the dust even. I’m pretty sour about all that.
I say, “You feel like some lunch?”
Sure, OK. I hardly go out in public at all anymore. I need this wheelchair with a motor to go anywhere, and for short distances I still need the cane. You like Mexican?
We ride in his van, with a wheelchair lift on the back. We are lucky enough to find a spot in front of the restaurant, allowing Tom to navigate with just the cane. It’s a friendly little place with the best tortilla chips I have ever had in my life. The walls are filled with beer posters, everyone of them a product of Anheuser-Busch, my old employer of 21 years. Wherever I go I cannot help noticing what brewers have their feet in the account and it looks like A-B owns this one. I have a Budweiser. We talk about the usual stuff: kids, trips we’ve taken, the families we can see through the window crowding downtown Paulding for the annual fair.
Pulling into Tom’s driveway back at his house I comment on a sign hanging on his garage. It says Paw Paw’s Workshop. He tells me the name came from his grandson. Then he tells me he has not been inside in years, because of his back.
I gave away my tools because I cried whenever I looked at them.
The patio behind the house is full of wooden planters and benches that came from his workshop. I comment on the rose bushes and planted areas in the yard.
Yes, my wife and I did all the landscaping, but I can’t do that anymore either. That’s why it’s kind of a mess. Come on in the house if you have time, I want to show you some things.
He takes me from room to room, pointing out the furniture he has built over the years: a highboy, a woman’s dresser, a gun case – all with perfect joints and detailed carvings from the hand of a craftsman. He sits on his bed and points to the bottom shelf of a bookcase.
I can’t bend down that far anymore. See if you can pull out that pile of DVDs. I’m looking for something I want to give you.
I find what he is looking for.
This is a program about a great tank battle in Vietnam. Most people don’t know that the North Vietnam had tanks, good Russian ones. But they did and there was one huge battle. I thought you would find it interesting.
I leave through the front door and he follows me out. He stands on the porch watching me load into my car. As I drive away he is still on the porch, waving.
Surplus is the companion book to Seven in a Jeep, and continue Ed Gaydos’ story after he returns home from Vietnam in 1971. These are the experiences that shaped him as a person, a father and as a successful business executive.
And of course, if you’re feeling frisky, you can pay money to pick up the paperback version as well.
To my mind imagination is the spice of life. There is nothing so uninteresting as a fact, for when you know it that is the end of it. Nelson Lloyd, The Last Ghost in Harmony
This is the story of Battery B, a collection of six cannons and a hundred or so guys, mostly teenagers, tromping around the Central Highlands of Vietnam. These are the experiences of the boys who were there, not the dusty facts in history books, but the red blooded adventures of everyday life in Vietnam.
We aren’t boys anymore by a long shot. Vietnam was so long ago that we do not recognize ourselves in the pictures we brought home. Is that me: so young, so vital, so forested with hair? Now when we meet a comrade for the first time since Vietnam we have only the image of the boy and cannot believe he is the elderly man before us.
Then the stories begin, knitting together again the bonds that held us close during that long ago war.
Andy Kach ribs Hank Parker, his old battery commander, for not sending him to the rear sooner for treatment of a wound to his jaw.
Captain Parker says in his defense, “I didn’t know you were that bad. During that time if you could pull a trigger you stayed.”
“I was leaking from my ear!” says Andy. ‘”If you knew that would you have sent me earlier?”
Parker laughs, “Probably not.”
One-story pulls forward another. The stories – born of chaos and confusion – now have structure, plots and punch lines, because memory is creative, it organizes the original mess into tidy dramas we love to tell and that we thrill to hear.
Everyone’s stories are true, even when they paint different pictures of the same event. That’s where the fun is, seeing how each of us rebuilds his past.
Parker tells anyone writing his memoir, “You write it as you remember it. Don’t change it for anybody, it’s your story.”
Most of us did not serve together. The enlisted guys were with the battery for a year, while officers moved every six months or so. But everybody overlaps with someone, forming a chain from the time the battery landed in Vietnam in 1965 to it’s deactivation in 1971. Linked together, our stories tell the story of battery B.
I start with a list of guys who served with the battery and begin to contact them. Some guys let out they don’t want to talk at all and I leave them be. Some tell me they will not talk about certain things, I get that. Others claim they don’t have much to offer and talk for an hour. A blessed few you can’t shut up.
My only tool is a digital recorder, a Tascam DR – 40, which I use so I don’t miss a syllable. I want to get the stories right and not let my memory of the conversation color the story, or worse, strip it of its raw, original telling.
We are scattered all over the country, like seed cast to the wind. I talk to guys by telephone, but I visit in person when I can, traveling to Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Virginia, Texas, Massachusetts, Florida. They show me the treasures brought back from Vietnam: maps, pictures, cigarette lighters, journals.
Mike Lauricella drags out the box the Army sent home to his parents after declaring him missing in action. He shows me official orders, patches, services ribbons and a stack of picture albums. “After getting out of the hospital I don’t remember anything, and can’t make sense of half the stuff in this box.”
Even over the telephone emotions resonate.
John Crosby, admired for his leadership as battalion commander and now a retired three star general, talks as if the war were yesterday. “One thing I really was remiss about as a commander, and this is a confession, OK? I deeply regret that I did not get those guys that did really good work, and put them in for a Bronze Star or something like that to recognize the good work that they did. I went to Washington and I saw these guys getting’ these damn medals and everything for doin’ nothin’. I thought about the soldiers that we had that were out there every single day in the trenches, isolated and facing danger every day – and I didn’t take care of them.”
The veterans I see in my travels and encounter at the other end of the telephone line are never aging men on the downside of life. They are now young again and full of vinegar. They are the boys of Battery B.
These stories will eventually be published as a book, The Boys of Battery B. I will post the chapters on this blog as they come off my keyboard, in their first unedited state. I hope you enjoy the journey.
Conjuncti Stamus – We Stand Together – Motto of the 27th Field Artillery Regiment, home of Battery B
The following is an excerpt from Ed Gaydos’s book Seven in a Jeep, reprinted with permission.
The Genuine Articles
Kline came rushing into my hooch with an M16. He had been in FDC only a few months, but had already figured out the angles of life in the field. There was an eager look in his eyes that always made me nervous. “I’m sending this home.”
“Kline, you can’t send your rifle home. What if you need it for something, like shooting at the VC?”
“It’s not mine.”
“Then whose is it?”
“It belongs to somebody. The Army keeps track, you know.”
“No, it’s a combat loss. I filled out some paperwork after the last mortar attack and made it a combat loss.”
“How’d you do that?”
“I got a form out of FDC. You weren’t there. I wrote I was sitting on the shitter when the mortars started coming in, but I didn’t say shitter, I said latrine. Then I said I jumped up so fast that my rifle fell down the hole. I wasn’t about to go in there and get it, especially with an attack going on. The next day the shit—latrine waste I think I said—got burned, along with the rifle. See? A combat loss.”
“Who signed it?”
“I just wrote the captain’s name where it said OIC. That means officer in command, doesn’t it?”
“No, but close enough.”
“Anyway, I made it squiggly.”
“You’re going to jail.”
“They gave me a new M16, so I’ve got this extra one that nobody knows about. Except now you and Junk Daddy.”
“Well, you can’t send it home.”
“I think I can do it. I know guys that have.”
“Kline, they X-ray everything that goes out of country.”
“That’s why I’m going to wrap it in tin foil, to fool the machine. Guys have done it.”
“It’s still going to look like a rifle.”
“Not if I send it home one piece at a time.”
“But even if you get it there, a fully automatic is illegal in the states.”
“What the hell, give it a try. I’ll visit you in Leavenworth.”
The next week Fred walked into my hooch. “I want to show you something,” he said and handed me a photo album. “I’m gonna send this home to my folks.”
“Wonderful,” I said flipping through the pages, “I’m sure they’ll like it.”
“You didn’t notice, did you?”
“The covers. Do you notice anything now?”
“They seem to be very nice covers.”
“They don’t look fat to you?”
“Well maybe a little, but nothing special.”
“Yes,” he said and pumped his fist.
“So what’s the big deal about the covers?”
“They’re stuffed with pot. And you can’t tell, can you? Listen, this is the best weed in the world. You can’t get stuff like this back in the world. And it’s cheap.”
“So your folks smoke pot. What is this, an anniversary present?”
When he grinned, his teeth stuck out in six different directions. “No, it’s for me…for when I’m back in the world.”
“You know if you get caught you’ll go to jail.”
“No I won’t. It’s foolproof.”
“What the hell, give it a try.”
What made me the go-to guy for sending illegal cargo through the U.S. Postal Service? Whatever it was I must have been good at it, because neither one of them got caught. To this day I imagine Kline in his den, a fire going, and mounted above the mantle is a fully automatic M16 rifle, the genuine article from Vietnam. And I picture Fred, seated in a circle of his closest pothead friends, the photo album on his lap, bragging about another genuine article from the war.
When the Military Police failed to show up for either Kline or Fred, I began to think about sending some of my own stuff home that I knew the Army would confiscate when I processed out of country. I had an AK47 banana clip, which I had come across partially sticking out of the ground on one of my jogs around the outside of our berm. Without thinking, I had bent down and pulled it out of the ground. It was only afterwards that it occurred to me what a stupid thing I had done. The VC, knowing the American weakness for souvenirs, often planted articles like this as booby traps. How many training films had I watched about booby traps?
I also had a handful of punji sticks, the sharpened bamboo spikes the VC planted in the ground along probable American patrol routes. I got them from a guy in one of the infantry units we supported. “They’re all over the place out there,” he said. “Smeared with shit ya’ know, so you get infected when you step on one. But don’t worry, I wiped these ones off.”
I wrapped everything in tin foil and sent the package home to my younger brother Joe. When Joe got the package he was thrilled. A nosy teenager, he gave the banana clip a close look, and then took it apart. Inside, tangled in the spring, were five live rounds. I remember thinking that the clip felt a little heavy, but didn’t give it much thought at the time. Then I realized that instead of a few wayward bullets stuck in its innards, the banana clip could have contained an explosive. What a present from Vietnam that would have made when young Joe opened the casing.
Today the bullets and the punji sticks are gone, lost in a move. The banana clip is back in my possession, a souvenir of the things that did not happen in Vietnam.