May 4, 2016

Vietnam -- Would I Go Back?

I occasionally work as a background extra on local TV productions. It’s something different, and when you’re retired different is good. In the Army, there’s a saying, “Hurry up and wait.” That pretty much sums up life as a background extra. Most of the time on the set is spent waiting to do whatever it is you were hired to do, whether it’s being a patron in a bar or a restaurant, a pedestrian, or just a face in the crowd. Sometimes it’s more involved than that, but mostly it’s not. I once spent five hours sitting on a bus waiting to be driven to a set location fifteen minutes away. So much time waiting around means there’s lots of time to chat with other extras. On my last set, the conversation wound its way by very devious route to my service in Vietnam. I was asked if I wanted to go back, what with Vietnam being a hot tourist spot these days and so many old soldiers going back for one last tour.

I thought back to my first day in country. I remember stepping off the plane and being overwhelmed by two immediate sensations: a smothering blanket of hot air and the stink of a thousand years of unwashed laundry. A week later I was flying into Quan Loi, a base camp about sixty miles north of Saigon, the tip of a spear pointed at the infiltration routes coming out of Cambodia. I stared down at a red landscape pockmarked with leech-infested craters. My new home was a working rubber plantation, the center of which had originally been the plantation offices and housing for the French managers, but which now hosted a landing strip, helicopter revetments, artillery emplacements, and hooches. (When the rubber workers left in the middle of the day, you knew trouble wasn’t far behind.) So began a year defined by six inches of mud or six inches of dust, depending on the season.

Months later I was in a remote area populated for the most part by Montagnard tribesmen. A small clearing surrounded by a berm was base camp. It was the height of the dry season. Even the “yards” were feeling the heat, not to mention the cooks who worked in an open tent over hot ovens. Looking back, I’m not sure why we merited a field kitchen. Maybe it was because the senior officer was a light colonel, a very nice man who lectured me on the differences between the war in the plains of Europe he was trained to fight and the war in the jungles of Vietnam he actually got to fight. Clearly, this was not what he signed up for, something we shared in common.

My office was a hole in the ground scooped out by a Rome plow, an enormous bulldozer equipped with an equally over-sized blade. (They were used to clear swathes of jungle alongside a road being built, our reason for being there.) You walked down the slope to a flat area at the bottom where a couple of tables held our radios. Overhead was a roof of corrugated metal. We shared the space with foot-long poisonous centipedes. The area was infested with mosquitos and some kind of weird flying scorpion critter we would swat at ineffectually with baseball bats. Laundry was done in whatever mud holes the mama-sans could find. It was without doubt the worst place I was in during my year there. I remember walking out to the berm one afternoon, staring out over the jungle, and thinking, “A man could put down roots here, build himself a home.” Uh, no … this isn’t a John Wayne western. (That’s another story.)

About twenty years after I got back, I started having a recurring dream about how I was re-drafted for a second tour in Vietnam. God knows what part of my psyche dredged up that particular scenario. Maybe every veteran feels there is unfinished business from the war, something left behind that you’d like to have back. I don’t know. But I do know the answer to the question about would I want to go back to Vietnam: “Hell no, I won’t go.”

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