In the beginning there were three. They had wandered into the firebase one by one looking for food and decided to stay: the way I imagine prehistoric wolves hung around human campfires and eventually turned themselves into dogs. Soon every howitzer platoon and section crew had its own dog, sometimes more than one. Wrinkles, matron of the FDC, did her part by having five puppies beneath Bob Christenson’s bunk in his back room. We kept one puppy and adopted the others out around the battery. Like dogs always do they went about with their masters and became voting members of the gang.
But dogs will be dogs. They started running in small packs. They established territories and fought over things that only made sense to a dog. One day I watched Wrinkles and her sister playing in the center of the compound. They belonged to different packs but were usually friendly with one another. Wrinkles found a crooked little stick, carried it near her sister and started tossing it in the air, as if to say, “Look what I got and you don’t.” Her sister now wanted that stick in the worst way and was willing to fight for it. The battle ended when Wrinkles got on top. With her fangs bared she forced her sister to a belly- up surrender. Afterwards both dogs wandered off, leaving the stick behind.
The dogs belonging to one of the guns, probably Gun 1, had a simmering feud going with the Maintenance dogs. The great showdown came when the two packs met outside the FDC bunker and became a tangle of bodies and snapping jaws. The guys from the gun and Maintenance came on the scene and took up sides. More people showed up and joined sides. The men and dogs made a single mob, filling the air with screams, growls and squeals of pain.
First Sergeant Stollberg had been unhappy with the dog situation for some time and this fight ripped it for him. At formation he said, “There’s too many dogs in the battery. It’s getting to the point where it’s not sanitary, with the shit piled everywhere and God knows what they’re pissing on. So here it is. Each unit gets one dog. That’s it. Guns, you get one dog for all of you, not five. Maintenance, FDC, Mess, Radar, Dusters and quad-50s each get one, that’s one for both quads and one for both Dusters. Pick the dogs you want to keep. The rest go tomorrow.”
There was no Humane Society in Vietnam, no doggie adoption agencies. Every unit did its own job. The dogs were coaxed into sandbags and carried squirming to holes outside the compound. M16 bursts went into the bags, making them jump and give off a squeal. When the bags went quiet the dirt went in over them.
Mike Leino somehow saved Wrinkles.
Love Him Or Hate Him
I mentioned in the beginning that Top and I did not get along. He was a screamer, at times almost out of control. I remember especially the time he came striding into FDC looking for me and very mad. Red faced and his eyes rimmed in red, he screamed a foot from my face because I had failed to send in a grocery order for the mess sergeant. There’s a whole story behind why, but not important. He dressed me down in front of my crew, made me say “Yes, First Sergeant” a few times, and stomped out. The embarrassment was one thing; worse was I never knew which Top was going to show up. Because his moods were so unpredictable I worked at staying out of his way.
Even in his crazy periods Top never made a bad decision the whole time we were together. And he always looked out for his guys, never himself. As much as I disliked the man, there were moments I loved the guy. One such time came quite by surprise during monsoon season.
God’s Shower Room
July brought the monsoon season in earnest to the Central Highlands. Most evenings at four o’clock sharp, thick clouds rolled down from the mountains and brought with them torrential rains. Walls of water turned the ground to soup, and when the sun set a dark descended so profound that a hand held out disappeared, dissolved by the night. The veterans went about with their eyes open but blind, navigating by the picture in their heads. New guys relied on flashlights, good for only a few feet in the downpour. With the rising sun the clouds moved back to the mountains, leaving the daylight hours clear and sunny. They hung purple and sullen on the mountain tops, and always seemed to me like they were waiting to attack.
The countryside erupted in lush, violent greenery. The warm daytime air sucked up moisture and made our valley into a great, sweltering sauna. The well filled high with clear water. Puddles the size of small lakes filled the compound. Guys floated in them on air mattresses and wrestled shin deep in the water. Everywhere wet clothing dried on the concertina wire, looking like a great outdoor laundry. A new trash pit we had just dug, but had not started to use, filled to the top with muddy water. It became a readymade swimming pool, and a jeep backed to the edge became a diving platform.
In the evening when the sun had almost set the clouds would roll down from the mountains and dump another flood on us. One evening while things were still barely visible I saw the First Sergeant strolling naked in the rain. His medicine ball stomach was leading the way, a bar of soap hung on a rope around his neck, and he was singing.
Words For Posterity
There was an incident that revealed Top’s true character, which I could admit only years later when I grew into some perspective on the man. It’s one of my favorite memories.
I was in the mess hall and the First Sergeant was at the next table. Outside two boys started wailing on each other in the center of the battery. They were crewmen on different guns, now settling an argument that had been festering for weeks. Their scrawny arms flew at one another like windmills, and a crowd was forming.
Top exploded from his chair and charged out the door, me right behind him. He marched with long, determined strides. His face was already scarlet, which meant trouble for anyone in its kill zone. He parted the spectators with a single breaststroke, and grabbed each combatant by an arm; they looked like chicken wings in his meaty fists.
Top pulled the kids apart. He paused for the crowd to quiet. Loud enough for everybody to hear First Sergeant Stollberg, career warrior, proclaimed in the middle of a combat zone, “Don’t you boys know that violence never solves anything?”