Fernando’s Outlook

Convoy Roadside Ville
Local Farm on Convoy Road

Monday, February 3, 1969

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 . . . 

Next Edition:  Sumo’s Plans

Top’s Resume

Road to 52
Top Culverhouse on Road to Hill 52

Sunday, February 2, 1969

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.

Next Edition:  Fernando’s Outlook

The Machete


Saturday, February 1, 1969

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.

* See previous blog, “Payday” August 1, 1968

Next Edition:  Top’s Resume

Jenny’s Final Update

Jenny staying warm
Jenny – Waiting for Steve’s Return Home

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.

Next Edition:  The Machete

Time Zones

Cook trio
Kilo’s Cooks – Sumo, Ptomaine, and Reb – 1968

Thursday, January 30, 1969

It was dark in our hooch, and we were writing letters by candlelight when Fernando commented, “It’s 6:00 am in El Paso (14 hours behind our time).”  He had a circular dial time conversion table.

Sumo had memorized the plus 2-hour time difference in Japan (now 10:00 pm).  His wife had probably just gone to bed.

I played with the dial, and it was 5:00 am on the West Coast . . . Jenny was still asleep in Laguna Beach.  The differences in time zones were easy to calculate, but the dates were confusing.

Sydney was 4 hours ahead of Vietnam, and it was just past midnight on January 31st there.  Reb had often said, “Margaret is always 4 hours ahead of me.”

The time zones, International Date Line and 10-day turnaround in mail communication was disorienting.  I tried not to think about it.  The most important thing to me was my short-timer status.  I am now in single digits, waiting for the freedom bird to take me home.

Next Edition:  Jenny’s Final Update

Dirty Laundry


Wednesday, January 29, 1969

Every Wednesday Mama-San delivered our washed laundry.  It was neatly folded and dry most of the time (sometimes slightly damp).  Usually I turned in two sets of utilities and socks.  I had given up wearing skivvies since my 25-day stint in Thuong Duc last July. *

Today I asked Hua to interpret the laundry transaction with Mama-San.  This would be the last delivery.  I explained I was leaving next week and thanked her for the excellent service she had provided.  She responded with a silent stare, and there was no acknowledgment of what I was saying.  Our talk ended abruptly as she got up and left.

Hua said, “Not how it works in Vietnam.”  He explained that I must promise to come back.  This was some sort of cultural issue.  It had something to do with saying goodbye forever was not acceptable.  “Just say I come back . . . It not a lie if in your heart.  It is our way.”

This was a dilemma for me.  My thought process was too black and white.  In my heart I knew I was not coming back, but I would always think of Mama-San as a friend.  It was like playing emotional charades, and I wasn’t good at it.

* See previous blog, “WP Air Bursts” July 4, 1968

Next Edition:  Time Zones

Rusty Water

Cooks’ Shower on Hill 65

Tuesday, January 28, 1969

Pure clean tasting water was a rarity on Hill 65 and the surrounding area.  Our source of drinking water came from the treatment plant at Hill 37.  Water from the Vu Gia River was chlorinated and tested before being dispensed.  It was clear but had a chemical odor.

Hua (our water boy) filled the shower daily with this treated water.  The inside of the 55-gallon drum was rusty, and sediment would settle in the bottom of the barrel.  We took showers in the late afternoon or early evening, and the first shower would flush out the orange silt.

Our shower was gravity fed and came out in a soft trickle.  There was no temperature control.  To conserve water, we would first get wet and then turn the valve off while soaping and scrubbing down.  The final rinse was a luxury but not as effective as a pressurized faucet.

The floor (a metal pallet) was too uncomfortable to stand on in bare feet.  We wore “shower shoes” locally crafted by the Vietnamese from tire treads.  The thong (between the toes) was made of rubber inner tube strips.  When someone finished showering, we could hear the slapping sound of the flip flops on the way back to the hooch.  We had it good.

Next Edition:  Dirty Laundry

The White Rainbow

Charlie Ridge Sunset
Charlie Ridge Sunset

Monday, January 27, 1969

Breakfast always began in the predawn darkness.  Most of the early risers in the chow line were just getting off guard duty or the late night watch in FDC and the Comm Center.  Later each gun crew would send someone to fill an ammo can with Reb’s doughnuts.  It was a morning routine, and the bulk of the meal was served in the final half hour (0630-0700) as the sun was rising.

Today was unusual.  Hill 65 rose above a low-hanging fog.  The rice paddies and villages were completely obscured by a fine mist.  The morning light was different and felt out of focus (there were no shadows).  Someone started yelling, “RAINBOW.”

The mess hall emptied out, and we all moved toward the road on the crest of the hill.  A huge bright all-white rainbow arced across Charlie Ridge.  It was spectacular and a little spooky.  I had no film for my camera to record this event.

The bow faded quickly and disappeared.  The vision of this phenomena in my head was like a fantasy, and I knew that trying to explain it would be the same as saying, “I saw a UFO.”  No one would believe it . . . but it did happen.

Next Edition:  Rusty Water

Grand Opening

Drying Out
Cooks’ Hooch on Hill 65

Sunday, January 26, 1969

Today was the big day:  the grand opening of the new staff club.  Gunny Pavelcek’s inspiration had taken a full three weeks to build.  The idea was to let the “peons” enjoy the enlisted club while the staff could relax in a separate environment.  Drinking was the common theme.

There was no glassware, and shots were hand poured by the Gunny into our canteen cups.  I ordered a shot of Bacardi on ice and added my own ration of Coke to the mix.  Others were drinking Boilermakers with beer as a chaser.  Top called it a “Two Step” (a Texas shot and a beer).  Shots sold for 50 cents MPC, the proceeds would buy more stock.

We decided to hold our weekly staff meeting in the club, rather than impose on the personal quarters of the staff hooch.  The red glow of the silk oil lamp helped adjust our night vision; when the meeting was over, we could easily negotiate our way outside with the first quarter moon overhead.

As a short timer on Hill 65, my priorities were changing.  For me, it was an occasion to wrap things up.  Many Marines just drove away in the dust cloud of a convoy and never looked back or said goodbye.  I wanted to have a conversation with friends and talk about our future plans.  For some (like the Gunny) there was no plan.  He was a Lifer and committed to the Corps; he would go wherever they sent him — this was his future.  His purpose was to make the best of his current situation . . . one day at a time.

Next Edition:  The White Rainbow

The Bribe

Napalm Delivery

Saturday, January 25, 1969

One of the mindsets in the Corps was “RHIP” (Rank has its privilege).  It was a presumptuous way of thinking that only worked part of the time.  Some Marines at the bottom of the food chain couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be bullied, “What are you going to do, send me to Vietnam?”  It was a difficult attitude usually brought on by a superior ranking person lacking leadership skills.

During lunch a Staff Sergeant from CAP 2-2-4 (south of Hill 65) asked to speak with me privately.  We went outside to the burner shack, and he wanted to know if we would feed his troops twice a week.  Before I could answer, he pulled out a quart of Bacardi rum . . . it was a bribe.

My answer was always the same, “We will gladly feed your troops any time, but we don’t deliver.”  I explained we had no vehicle or security detail.  He was surprised and said, “You mean you will supply the food if we pick it up?”  I told him it would be better if it was arranged in advance, but either way we would be happy to feed his men.

He thanked me and tried to hand over the bottle of rum . . . I didn’t take it.  Bribery was a part of the “beg, borrow or steal” mentality, but it was an awkward moment.  I asked him to follow me, “I’d like you to meet someone.”  We walked up the slope to the new staff club.  Gunny Pavelcek was installing the red silk lamp, and I introduced the Staff Sergeant to him.  After they exchanged pleasantries I said, “We might want to make him an offer for the bottle of rum.”  The negotiations began so I left them alone to make some sort of a trade.

Next Edition:  Grand Opening