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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Final preparations on the new staff club were underway. The poncho liner seat covers were fitted over the pink fiberglass chairs, and a bench seat was built into the east-facing wall (a window seat). So far, the Gunny had acquired bottles of Seagrams 7, Cutty Sark and a frosted bottle of Gilbey’s gin.
Drinking in Vietnam was not my thing. I enjoyed having a quiet cocktail with Jenny and had partied at the El Toro club with friends, but boozing it up on Hill 65 seemed out of bounds. My lack of interest annoyed the Gunny.
I read today’s letter from Jenny in the fresh air of the open OP. It was her last week of college (finals week). She planned to pack most of her things and move to the Laguna Beach house at the end of the week. Her instructions to me were, “Send all future notes to Laguna.” I realized she was probably already there, and our letter writing would soon end.
Over the past year we had learned to communicate with a 10-day turnaround between letters. Anything arriving in Fresno by mail after today would be forwarded to her in Laguna Beach.
My flight out of Vietnam was scheduled for February 7th, with a 3-day layover in Okinawa (according to Top Culverhouse). This would get me to MCAS El Toro on the 10th or 11th. I sent this information to Jenny and promised to call when I arrived. Then I planned to take a cab to Laguna; it was the quickest way home and not particularly expensive.