Sumo told me not to get up because he had planned a special breakfast. The cooks and mess men usually ate before the chow line opened at 0530, and I joined them for my final meal on Hill 65. The menu was SOS (hamburger meat gravy) on fresh biscuits with eggs to order. Everyone had a big laugh about “Ptomaine’s favorite meal.”
After chow, I went to the hooch to gather my gear as Reb was going to bed. In an effort to dissuade him from his unlawful scheme, I started a conversation. “Looking over your shoulder the rest of your life will be miserable.” I explained how I understood his need to get back with Margaret; however, it didn’t make sense why he would put the person he loved in jeopardy. Reb was silent, but he listened. “Play it straight, be patient and you two will live a happy life together. Don’t do this to her; you should honor her brother.”
We patted each other on the back and he said, “Thanks Sarge.” I left the hooch for the last time and headed up the hill wearing my helmet and flak jacket with M-16 in hand.
Fernando drove his truck to the Exec Pit, and we started loading. A sick Marine with a fever rode in the cab so the BAS would be our first stop. As I lifted myself up to the bed of the truck, someone grabbed my leg and pulled me down . . . it was Mama-San, and she was wailing “YOU NO CAN GO.”
Marines were trying to pull her off me and I said, “STOP, leave her alone.” I held her and said, “It’s OK, I will come back.” Her dark eyes were filled with pools of tears as she repeated my words, “You come back?” I looked her straight in the face and said, “YES.” Hua stood beside her, crying (he knew I was lying).
The trip to Headquarters Battery on Hill 34 was uneventful. Fernando waited while I turned in my M-16 and 782 gear. I received my official orders and got in the truck. Next stop was the Division Dispersing Office. After exchanging my MPC for greenbacks, I walked to the Dental Clinic where I got my teeth cleaned.
I hitched a ride to Four Corners and waited for the Admin truck to return from FLC. It was dry goods delivery day, and the truck was loaded with provisions for the week. Fernando dropped me off at Headquarters, and we wished each other luck as he headed back toward Convoy Road.
I was covered with dust and needed a shower so I went to the cooks’ hooch. I was undressed and wrapped in a towel when Mai (now a hooch maid) came in and asked if I needed anything. “No, thank you.” I stuffed my wallet in my shaving kit and went to the shower to rinse off the dust. When I returned to the hooch and got dressed, my watch was missing (I had left it on the cot with my clothes).
The watch was now worthless except for sentimental value. Jenny had given it to me as a Christmas gift. * It was my fault for leaving it out, but thankfully my wallet was safe.
The Headquarters Jeep driver dropped me at the Transient Center. Handlers checked everyone in, and we were briefed to stay put until 0400. Then we would be transported to our flight ramp. It was a tense night, and few of us slept.
* See previous blog, “A Trip to the PX” late December 1967
Today was my last day on Hill 65. My green carry-on bag was packed, and the remaining possessions were divvied up between my hooch mates. The spotting scope became a fixture in the OP.
With the anxiety of leaving, I found it difficult to sleep and joined Reb in the bakery. He had “punched” the sweet dough and was rolling it out to cut doughnuts. The scraps were saved and placed into individual piles to rise again.
Reb was scheduled to rotate to CONUS in mid-April. I was curious about his relationship with Margaret in Australia so I asked if their art collaboration would continue after he went home.
He announced, “I’m not going home. I plan to extend my tour for six months and go to Sydney for the 30-day R&R.” In my mind this was craziness, and I tried to understand his thinking. Then came the curveball . . . Reb didn’t intend to come back to Vietnam; he was going to stay in Australia with Margaret. I said, “That would be desertion, and they will come after you.” Reb stopped rolling the dough and presented his whole scheme.
James, Margaret’s photography student, wanted to be a photo journalist (he had served in Vietnam with her twin brother in the Australian Army). He planned to return to Vietnam, posing as Reb. The new military photo ID * Reb had made was now in James’ possession with a switched photo. On arrival in Da Nang, James would have Reb’s orders endorsed and time stamped when he checked in. At this point all evidence concerning Reb would be destroyed, and James then became an independent photo journalist who already had his own credentials. He could travel freely and hoped to work his way to Saigon.
Reb continued with the plot, “Right now I am working as a ghost employee in Mark’s Cafe. ** I have a new identity in Sydney.” The photo, which I had taken of Reb with the Tri-X film, was used to create his new ID. As an Australian, he could start a new life with Margaret.
“Yes, it is desertion, and they will come looking for me . . . but not in Australia. They will look for me in Vietnam. There is nothing left for me at home in North Carolina; I’m never going back.”
This came as a total surprise, and I was completely dumbfounded! From their exchange of letters, I knew that Reb and Margaret were close, but the 12-year age difference threw me off. These two were madly in love and were willing to risk everything to be together.
We continued rolling dough, and Reb asked me to put some pieces of canned apple pie filling into the rising piles of dough scraps. The outcome was a misshapen apple fritter, topped with maple glaze. Reb laughed and said, “Margaret calls them froiters.” He was looking forward to changing his Southern accent to Aussie (with Margaret’s help).
This entire conversation made me uncomfortable, and I didn’t know whether to believe it or not. Rather than lecture Reb regarding this complicated idea, I decided to sleep on it. It was the last time I used my rice hull pillow. ***
* See previous blog, “Reb’s ID” January 7, 1969
** See previous blog, “Margaret’s Letter” October 15, 1968
*** See previous blog, “Rice Hull Pillow” February 14, 1968
My work on Hill 65 was done. I mailed my last letter to Jenny before the Admin run left. She had written me a letter regarding my reference to taking a cab from MCAS El Toro to Laguna Beach. Jenny was excited and wanted to pick me up in person. It wasn’t about the cost . . . she was looking forward to participating in my homecoming. I promised to call her as soon as I arrived and would wait for her outside the front gate at the Dry Cleaners.
After serving lunch, Sumo and I hung out in the mess deck as dinner was cooking. We had prepared beef stew, and the ingredients for fresh biscuits were measured and ready in the bakery.
Sumo was waiting for his orders. He had arrived on the hill one year ago. * The best case scenario for him was to be stationed at MCAS Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. His wife spoke only Japanese, and Oahu had a significant population of Japanese Americans. He thought it would be easier for her to assimilate in that environment.
Regardless of where he was stationed, his plans were to finish his enlistment and return to Japan. His parents lived in Flint, Michigan, but he felt there was too much racial intolerance to bring his wife into that situation.
Sumo had gotten into some trouble at MCAS Iwakuni. The laws in Japan allowed a 16-year-old girl to be married. However, the US military required a Commander’s permission for marriage to a Japanese citizen. Even though his wife’s family approved, the Commander said no. They got married anyway, and Sumo lost his chance for promotion to Sergeant . . . a month later he received orders to Vietnam. Remarkably, Sumo was not bitter about the outcome. He reasoned the orders would have come one way or another.
The next best option for duty was on the West Coast. He promised he would keep in touch, and maybe someday our wives could meet.
The daily Admin run to Da Nang was Fernando’s primary job. His truck (2-1/2 ton) was in new condition, and he kept it in good order. The round trip to FLC and Battalion Headquarters averaged about 6 hours driving time. Convoy Road was having less incidents with mines, and the drive was becoming routine. No one knew the road better.
After dinner Fernando wanted to talk about his R&R in Hawaii. He was scheduled to leave in a week and planned to meet his parents there. It was going to be a different experience for him. His main concern was that it was a good vacation for them because they never took time off from their restaurant.
As we talked, I asked if he had any plans after getting out of the Corps. He was considering a job as a long-haul trucker. The idea of going to college didn’t appeal to him. He wanted to “see the country” before settling down. The girl he was exchanging letters with was a friend of the family, and she was interested in becoming an accountant. She worked as a part-time bookkeeper for the restaurant.
It seemed to me there was a love interest in the relationship with this “friend,” but the details were too private for Fernando to share.
Fernando’s outlook reminded me of the song, “The Wanderer.”
Oh well, I’m the type of guy who will never settle down
Where pretty girls are, well you know that I’m around . . .
Every Sunday after the Steak BBQ, Top Culverhouse would show up with his stash of taco shells from home. They were brittle and stale, but it was a family tradition in Texas to make tacos and beans on Sunday night. He received “Care Packages” of tortilla shells by mail, and we provided the cooked hamburger and accompaniments.
Usually we sat with him as he ate, and he would “shoot the shit” about life in Texas or the trials of fatherhood (he had two teen daughters). It was all interesting stuff to me. He planned to retire in two years. I asked Top, “What are you going to do when you get out of the Marines?” He answered with confidence, “I’ll probably fill out a resume and run someone’s company for them.” Leadership was his expertise, and he was brimming with Self Assurance about his abilities.
I challenged his authority on this, “But you have to know something about the business.” He laughed and said, “So you think I know about artillery?” It was a fair question . . . the answer was, “I manage people.” Culverhouse was an administrator, and getting people to do the job they were trained to do was his craft. He was so good at it that he sometimes had people doing his job for him. It was like Tom Sawyer tricking Huck Finn into whitewashing the fence.
The pay officer showed up early, and we received our monthly compensation in MPC. I signed for the money and recounted my wallet. I had $130 to spend in Okinawa on my way home.
Gunny Pavelcek was busy hustling people off to work parties, and I asked him if he wanted the French “Coup Coup” machete. He had borrowed it to use in Thuong Duc * back in August. He assumed I was trying to sell it and said, “No, I’m saving money for R&R.” He was planning to go to Hong Kong.
When I told him it wasn’t for sale, he stopped and listened. I explained it was given to me as a gift after Papa-San was killed and that I couldn’t take it home. It was a useful tool and needed someone to care for it.
He started to consider this offer so I embellished the story regarding Papa-San’s hand being cut off. I explained, “This is the same machete the Viet-Minh used to cut off his hand. During the night the villagers killed the rebel leader and took his machete. They presented it to Papa-San out of respect for his loyalty to the community.”
Pavelcek accepted the machete and gave me $10. I thanked him and said, “I will use the money to purchase bar supplies for the club.” His eyes lit up and he said, “We’ll put the machete on display behind the bar.” Now I was obligated to follow through with this agreement.
The Gunny had no plans for his future. He lived one day at a time and was happy with his life. His only commitment was to the Corps.
January 1969 was our last month of separation before Steve finally returned home in early February. It was a month of studying for finals in order to finish college at the conclusion of the fall semester.
Unfortunately, I got very sick and our friends (Mickey and Larry) drove me to their home in Porterville so I wouldn’t be alone while I was recuperating from the Hong Kong flu. I spent many hours sleeping on their couch. In fact, I missed most of Super Bowl III on January 12; however, I had already seen lots of the hype leading up to the game. Quarterback Joe Namath of the New York Jets had previously “guaranteed” that his underdog team would beat the Baltimore Colts, and surprisingly he was right! Then we also watched President Johnson give his last “State of the Union Address” on January 14.
After recovering, I returned to Fresno later that week. I appreciated having such good friends who took care of me during this illness as well as at other times. Late one night in 1968 they had also taken me to the Emergency Room at the local hospital for a tetanus shot. This was as a result of the rusty curb feeler on our VW getting stuck in my ankle when I walked past it in their very narrow garage.
At the end of the month I completed final exams in all my upper division classes, and I had earned a BA degree in Social Science. The timing was perfect, and I was pleased that our original plan had worked out so well.
Then I moved temporarily to my family’s house in Laguna Beach to wait for Steve to come home. As he was scheduled to land at nearby MCAS El Toro, we would finally be together again soon.
Looking back on the previous 13 months apart, I marvel at how we both managed to get through it all. And even though we corresponded almost daily, we still needed to get to know each other once again. Now it really was like starting over.