Reb was now receiving mail from Margaret twice a week. She shared the news of her newly-named “Mark’s Cafe.” The collaboration of their photos/sketches was on display. This new motif redefined the coffee lounge as a friendly hangout for veterans and families. There was a prominent exhibit of her twin brother, Mark’s military service and sacrifice.
At mail call Reb received another package of photos. This batch had new content and was slightly different in quality. All the images were of women, either with a young child or toddlers, and the 8″ X 10″ prints were a little grainy (format).
I asked if Margaret had changed cameras, and he said, “Oh no, these aren’t her photos. They were taken by James.” Apparently there was now another collaborator, and Reb was good with this development.
James was wounded in Vietnam and had served in the same unit as Mark. After being discharged from the Australian Army, he was starting a new career as a photographer. Margaret was his mentor.
This situation didn’t bother Reb. Margaret gave the reassurance of James having a lady friend, and this arrangement had something to do with honoring Mark’s service. The women in the photos were all war widows with their fatherless children. Margaret had intentions of respecting the families of the fallen (further defining the Cafe).
Reb’s sketches were far better than James’ photos. The challenge was for Reb to blend the two formats into a coherent work of art. His passion for sketching came from his father’s disparaging remarks about his art, “You need to stop wasting your life and get a real job.” *
* See previous blog, “New Mess Deck Approved” March 11, 1968
Sleep in Vietnam never came easy. I woke with cobwebs in my head and had a persistent throbbing. Fernando’s fresh coffee was the antidote. The concept of caffeine withdrawal was a real condition I learned from Papa-San. * He would gesture with his only hand to his head and say, “Ca Phe Nong.”
After lunch Gunny Pavelcek announced he was moving our 50 cal. machine gun to the motor pool OP. It seemed like a provocation, but I stayed calm and agreed it was a “smart move.”
The weekly staff meeting was a review of our performance during the 100 percent alert. We discussed the flaws in our communication system . . . Kilo Battery had “wired phones,” but India Company used radios. This situation would be addressed later.
After the staff meeting, I briefed the cooks over ice cream covered with chocolate syrup. We all agreed that the loss of the 50 cal. machine gun in our OP was a good thing. Sumo asked if I thought the Gunny didn’t trust us. I didn’t question the Gunny or his motives and suggested we just call it a truce.
The subject changed to our plan for preparing the Thanksgiving Day meal. It had already been decided we would only have two meals (a regular breakfast and an early afternoon holiday dinner). Although it would be more work, we voted to add corn pudding to the list of food. It was “traditional” in the South, and many of the Marines we served were from that region. We were bound by the menu provided to us, but no one said we couldn’t add items.
Just after midnight mortars started firing at us from near the popular forces compound. I had a clear shot, but it was coming from a friendly area. A 50 cal. machine gun opened fire from Lima Battery’s eastern finger of Hill 65, and then another 50 started firing from the perimeter gate OP.
Gunny Pavelcek was yelling “HOLD YOUR FIRE.” Another round of mortars was fired, and we hunkered down as they exploded near the dump. As far as I could tell, none of Kilo’s defensive OPs were returning fire.
The mortar fire stopped, and all went quiet. Then the phone blurted, “PTOMAINE to the Exec Pit.” I grabbed my M-16 and made my way up the hill where I answered, “Sergeant Kysor reporting as ordered.” The Gunny ripped into me, “I said HOLD YOUR FIRE; why did you keep firing?” I yelled back, “WE NEVER FIRED A ROUND!”
When I explained that he was viewing the tracers from the 50 at the perimeter gate, he said, “Don’t you tell me what I saw.” Lieutenant Westerfield cut in saying, “Hold on Gunny” . . . he was on the radio with India Company. “It was India’s outpost firing, not ours.”
In the heat of battle, perception was reality. From Pavelcek’s angle of view, it appeared our gun was firing. I could see his eyes glaring at me in the dark. I invited him, “Come check our brass Gunny, you won’t find any.” I didn’t mean it as a taunt, but he was in no mood for reason.
That night at our meeting in the Staff hooch, I turned down the free beer which annoyed the Gunny. He said, “You too good for our beer?” I replied, “I haven’t slept in 30 hours, and I have a headache.” Top Culverhouse put his hand up gesturing silence between us. “Let’s sort this out tomorrow night; we all need some sleep.”
Reb returned from 1st Med with a 3-gallon tub of vanilla ice cream. It was packed into a large stockpot with ice and rock salt. No one on Hill 65 knew we had this precious cache, and we disguised it in a cardboard box in the ice cream freezer.
In addition to acquiring the ice cream, Reb made contact with medics and others in the medical unit. These Navy personnel were in the market for souvenirs, anything (war related) to take home.
Reb did sketch one of the nurses sitting on a blast wall of sandbags. She had her head back with her face basking in the sun. It looked natural, but she was actually posing for the sketch. He managed to get her address and promised to send her a copy.
My new hangout in the early evening was the cooks OP. Sumo and Fernando usually went to bed early, and Reb was in the bakery. I heard footsteps coming toward our hooch, and Gunny Pavelcek announced, “Get up, we’re on 100 percent alert.”
An LP (Listening Post) from India Company had reported a group of 40 VC, wearing packs, on our side of the river. This information triggered the alert, and we were told to prepare for an “imminent attack.” Reb secured the bakery and joined me in the OP.
We sat silently in the dark and listened. Occasionally there were illumination flares, and we scanned the wire for any movement. The situation reminded me of TET . . . mortars after midnight, followed by a ground attack.
FLC had a special dock at the end of the receiving area. Anything on this loading area was up for grabs. Usually the products were overstock or unwanted exotic foods. It was difficult to load extra supplies on days when we received dry goods, but Fernando managed to get two cases labeled “Langostino” into the small trailer.
None of us knew what it was, and we opened a case to find small lobster-like tails. Our recipe guide had nothing on this crustacean so we referenced the Regional Cook Book. It had no recipes either.
Sumo started a large stockpot of salted water boiling and cooked a case of the little reddish orange tails. The thumb-sized pieces of meat easily pulled out of each shell and curled into a ball. There was a faint iodine flavor, and they tasted like a cross between shrimp and lobster.
There were 120 in each case so we cut each one in half and substituted them for clams in our chowder recipe. We served it on the condiment bar at dinner, and it was a great addition to the regular “Southern Meal” * of cornbread, pinto beans, coleslaw, and catfish,
Reb was spending the night at 1st Med, so I had the duty making doughnuts for the morning pastry bar. I finished by 0100 and managed to get three hours sleep before we opened for breakfast.
* See previous blog, “The Southern Meal” February 23, 1968
Our overnight Navy visitor returned to Da Nang after working with Reb in the bakery. He extended an invitation for Reb to join him on a night shift at 1st Med so I explained to him that we would work out the details. There was nothing to lose from this relationship, and I considered it a healthy distraction. It would also allow Reb the opportunity to spend some time at the China Beach R&R Center.
This venture needed approval from Top Culverhouse, and I tried to sell it as a reward for Reb’s hard work in the bakery. The Top was reluctant to approve this unofficial overnight stay. There were a lot of loose ends, and we didn’t have all the answers.
Culverhouse was shaking his head as if to say no, but then he bluntly asked Reb, “Why do you really want to go to work at 1st Med for a night?” Reb’s answer was unexpected, “I was hoping to be able to sketch some of the nurses.” This seemed to break the ice on the conversation, but the Top needed some time to “think it over.”
Later as we were unloading our weekly dry goods order, Culverhouse showed up to watch us rotate the products received. When everything was secured, Reb asked Top to look at his artwork. It was an impressive collection, and the intimate sketches of Margaret caught Top’s eye. “Is this what you have in mind at 1st Med?” Reb answered, “Oh no Sir, I just want to sketch them at work.”
Culverhouse approved the overnight but wanted to see Reb’s results.
Sometimes visiting units on Hill 65 stood out. We had an Army gun battery on the hill for a few days (two 175mm guns), but they were moved shortly after blowing all the screens off the mess hall. We were in the concussion radius of an outbound round. Visitors weren’t always welcome and were carefully watched as suspicious characters.
There was a knock on the galley door before dinner (no one ever knocked), and a Navy Petty Officer wanted to speak to me. He was a baker from 1st Medical Battalion in Da Nang and wanted to meet with our baker (Reb). He had heard stories from Marines about our pastry bar and came to see it for himself.
After a short conversation, it was decided he would work with Reb during the night and return to Da Nang the next day. Compared to the hospital facility, our galley and bakery were primitive. 1st Med had commercial refrigeration and deck-style ovens. I was skeptical about the motives of this stranger.
Reb was a little chilly about this idea, but Sumo told him it was an opportunity (maybe there would be a reciprocal response). The two of them went to work after dark, making batches of sweet dough and created doughnuts, maple bars and sugar twists.
I got up at midnight to see how they were doing, and the two had become fast friends. As it turned out, “equipment” had nothing to do with the end results. Reb’s techniques (learned from Margaret in Sydney) were not in Navy/Marine Corps recipe guides. It was a craft. *
I went back to bed, knowing I was one day closer to going home.
* See previous blog, “Reb’s Story” August 18, 1968