Saturday, April 05, 2008

An Egregious Omission Corrected

Far too long ago, now over a month, my co-blogger at Mockingbird's Medley, Scorpio, named unsolicited Opinion as one of her 10 excellent blog selections. It took me a few days to spot her post and I very much appreciated her thought. I immediately resolved to thank her but I was supposed to also pass on the love to my ten most excellent blog choices. That bogged me down and inertia took its due course and I am now just acknowledging her recognition.

I still don't have my ten excellent blog selections. I can name plenty but for every one I name, I'm probably excluding another, so I'll just thank you all for your contributions to my continuing enlightenment.


Friday, April 04, 2008

Another War Story

Saw a story today about four photographers killed when their chopper went down in Laos during the February 1971 incursion by the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN)into that country to attack North Vietnamese bases there. The operation, Lam Son 719, was intended to showcase South Vietnamese military prowess. It turned into a rout, complete with photos of ARVNs hanging on to the sides of a chopper fleeing the scene. This is four years before the iconic photos of the rooftop evacuation in Saigon but it has much the same feel. It was pretty much a "defining moment" (to borrow a contemporary usage) for the South Vietnamese; it told me that they could never defeat the North.

I haven't found that 1971 photo but I came across a site by American chopper pilots who flew much of the support for the operation. Their comments and photos will tell you how fucked up it was. I have always thanked my lucky stars that I did not take the Army up on its offer of flight school--I would have been a 23 year old cherry pilot arriving just in time for this clusterfuck:
The whole thing was chaos. The ONLY reason there was ONLY 106 aircraft lost and 65 crewmen killed from 08 Feb 71 to 20 Mar 71 was because of the determination of the teenagers flying the aircraft who decided THEY were not going to let their friends down. Had NOTHING to do with getting the mission done. Had everything to do with NOT letting your buddy down.

The story triggered some memories. As it was I was involved with Lam Son 719 even though I passed on flight school. Indirectly involved, I guess I should say. Like really, really indirectly involved. Affected more than involved. I was a grunt in the mountains north and east of Bien Hoa, a member of the air mobile 1st Cavalry Division. We made combat assaults by helicopter. By mid February 1971 I had made maybe a half dozen "assaults", all of which were uneventful, no hostile fire. Flying was nerve-wracking but also strangely exhilarating, if for no other reason than the cool air blowing through the open cabin and the forever view of a lush countryside. Somehow, war could almost seem far away even flying into it. I never felt comfortable in a chopper but recognized it for the luxury it was--a distance that I did not have to walk. You can get a bit of the feel of "rotary wing" aircraft operations here.

But suddenly, no choppers were to be had. They were all up in Laos with the ARVNs in some big operation, we were told. So we went out by truck to some drop off and began walking. I'm pretty sure we had only two trucks, a deuce and a half and a 3/4 ton Jeep pick up truck. The latter was the truck we used for hauling garbage on the firebase, on this day became "combat assault by garbage truck". I thought the term was fully appropriate for the war I was fighting.

Later we heard the news about the fiasco. No one was surprised. Most of us had little regard for ARVNs and absolutely no trust in them. We knew that the future of the war would depend on them because we were all going home within a year and even more significant, so was the US Army. The 101st Airborne pulled out in March 1971. By May, the First Cavalry Division went home to Fort Hood, leaving behind a separate brigade that of four infantry battalions, including my own. All the guys in the 101st and other Cav units who weren't short were transferred to the remaining brigade and left to fight on.

By this time I knew the other side would win. Hell, they hid their food under rocks in the woods and we--the most powerful military in the world--could not defeat them. They What I saw and knew of the South Vietnamese Army was pathetic compared to what I saw and new about the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. who were disciplined, dedicated and motivated. It was only a matter of time and the clock finally ran out in April 1975.


Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Blown Away

That’s how I feel about Olympia after the past couple days. All I can say is “Wow.” My neighbor, Mel, and I went to the Student Orchestras of Greater Olympia Spring Concert on Sunday and discovered that this area can field probably two full student symphony orchestras from local music programs. They performed in three ensembles, each demonstrating amazing proficiency.

First was a Debut Orchestra of elementary and middle school musicians, who played pieces that emphasized individual sections. Without my program, I don’t recall the titles but I think one was an Irish Suite. They also did very well cranking out a fast paced tune like Brahm’s Radetzky(?) March. They were pretty amazing. Not a few were pretty small kids but they performed as an orchestra and played well..

Second up was the Academy Orchestra–middle and intermediate high school musicians. This ensemble performed a couple pieces that created sound and movement. (Is that a tone poem?) One was The Cat Waltz or something like that. The other was an urban intersection whose title escapes me. The Academy Orchestra’s finale was a Dvorak Slavonic Dance , maybe No. 26, a fairly challenging–and a personal favorite–work that requires some skill and precision. They did well..

A Brass Choir performed next. French horns, trombones, trumpet and tuba. About 12 in all. These musicians were from the Conservatory Orchestra and were very proficient. I don’t recall the titles but at least one was familiar.

After intermission the Conservatory Orchestra came on stage. Tuning up, they impressed me as an ensemble with a force and presence. I realized that sense of power and command was missing in the previous ensembles. Where they had been tentative, this orchestra sounded mature. That showed in their performance. First off was a young woman soloing on French horn, playing a Saint Saens concerto. She was damn good on what is apparently a very difficult instrument. My neighbor told me that a French horn scholarship at Boston College went unused for years because few even attempted to master this instrument. This particular French horn concerto was performed well but it sounded more to me like “here’s what I can do with this instrument” than a piece I would hear for enjoyment. Still, it was an intense, impressive performance.

The evening’s major piece was Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, From the New World, another favorite and a demanding work that showcased the entire orchestra. The orchestra built the tension well across the various instrumental sections. The French horns, even in the solos, sounded very much a part of the piece. Same with all the other instruments. The full orchestra was 58 members, all of whom knew what they were doing. The final movement was filled with sound and passion as came to a resounding climax. All this from high school students. It’s enough to give me hope for the future.

Not that I didn’t hear flat notes, especially in the highest ranges, now and then, more with the younger musicians than the older. If anything, the concert demonstrates the musicians’ growth and development, which was as much fun as the music itself. . These students are not masters but many showed the dedication and skill to become masters. That this music happens at all for these students is far more important than the occasional dropped note.

So the concert was good, and cheap entertainment ($10) on a Sunday afternoon. Mel and I walked back to his place on a pleasant sunny afternoon. Walking in downtown Olympia is very pleasant. The area retains much of its original architecture and street scape. In many places the curbing has been redesigned to calm traffic and facilitate pedestrian street crossing. It’s much like walking in an earlier America populated with the diversity of 21st century northwest diversity.

To top it all off, I visited the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge yesterday on my way back from a trip to Tacoma. Much of the refuge is visible from I-5 about 10 miles east of Olympia. I’ve driven past it many, many times. This time I stopped to check it out. The refuge straddles the Nisqually River and the delta where it flows into Puget Sound. I walked a couple miles along a nature trail that took me past a couple of very large barns (the land was a dairy farm in the last century) and along the river. I could see across the marshes to Puget Sound and the snow-capped Olympic Mountains in the far distance. Wildlife was abundant–lots of geese, ducks and many smaller birds I did not recognize. I caught a glimpse of a heron or kingfisher along the river but only fleetingly through the brush.

Spring is definitely coming to the refuge. The trees are sprouting fat buds and green is pushing up through last year’s gray-brown detritus. Flowering buds here and there, green foliage beginning to show on the undergrowth. Enough of everything to clearly announce Spring’s arrival but not enough to close in the forest just yet. This spring in particular is characterized by changeable weather. Yesterday was no different. Lots of sun and partly cloudy skies all morning. By the time I reached Nisqually, skies were more overcast, with some dark clouds in the west. Sure enough by the time I had been walking just a short while, hail flurries were falling. By the time I reached my turnaround point, a much larger dark cloud was heading over. This, too, was hail but it was a steady down pour, the crystals bouncing off my jacket and along the ground. I didn’t get too wet but I did learn that hail stings very lightly when it hit my face.

Music and nature. I am a very, very fortunate man.


Sunday, March 30, 2008

One Day on the Road

Small clouds of dust rise as the patrol moves carefully down the road. Three men with metal detectors are in the lead, checking for mines planted overnight. This ritual begins each day on the firebase. Once the road is clear, the convoy from Bien Hoa can travel in safety, or what passes for safety in the No Man’s Land of Vietnam, bringing the day’s load of supplies, returning vets and maybe even some new guys. The patrol carefully works its way toward Route One where the convoy will be waiting.

The morning is already warm, the men sweating. Dave Reed walks behind Stickman who sweeps his metal detector in a slow arc. Reed carefully studies the wood line on each side of the road. After seven weeks in country, Reed is determined to let nothing come at him unseen.


Voices from behind distract him. “Shit man, how much longer are those clowns gonna take? This patrol is getting real old.” A quick and stoic reply: “It don’t make no difference. We’re there when we get there. Enjoy the fucking stroll.”

No difference, Reed thinks. That’s about it. Nothing any of us can do about this shit. Just roll with the punches and hope. His thoughts wander back to anti war demonstrations when he was in college. In that other world. We thought we could stop the war, that our outrage would make a difference. Did me a lot of fucking good. Reed’s attention lurches back to the present. He watches Stickman’s metal detector moving rhythmically. He eyes the wood line. What am I doing here, he asks himself as the heat, the dust, the barren swath and dark green wood line converge.


Stickman stops suddenly. He moves his metal detector back and forth over one spot. “Engineer up front!” he calls.

The engineer, a beefy specialist Reed does not know, walks leisurely to the front of the column, accompanied by the lieutenant.

“I think I got something.” Stickman says gravely.

“Let’s see,” the engineer grunts, taking the earphones from Stickman. “Now move the plate over the spot.” The patrol stands silent, waiting with equal parts boredom and apprehension, as the engineer listens.

“Yep, you got something alright.” The engineer turns to the lieutenant. “LT, better move everbody back while I check this out.” As the patrol squad begins to move, the engineer is already probing the area gingerly with a bayonet. Within five minutes, he has located and defused a 12 pound anti-tank mine after first dismantling a small booby trap set to detonate the mine on any one trying to remove it. The patrol continues forward. A minute later, the morning stillness is shattered by the explosion of the now harmless mine. Shit, Reed thinks, that was big enough to take us all out.


Two mines and one booby trap later, the patrol reaches Route One. The convoy is waiting outside a small village. Vietnamese vendors work their way up and down the line of trucks, selling wares, cold soda and food. A few women offer themselves.

“Where the hell have you guys been,” the convoy officer asks. He is slouched in the cab of the lead truck, the driver still asleep beside him.

“Protecting your goddamn rear-loving ass,” the lieutenant shoots back, only partly in jest. “We pulled up three mines with your name on it.”

“I guess that’s worth waiting for,” the officer replies, sitting up as the driver comes to life. “Better bored and hot than dead. Enjoy the mama sans,” he says with a grin as he signals to head out. The convoy lumbers forward, disappearing into its own dust cloud.


The patrol sets up on either side of the road to await the signal to sweep back to the firebase prior to the convoy’s departure. Reed is surprised at the assault of the “junk ladies” as Stickman calls them. He saw women selling items outside the gates at Bien Hoa when he came in country but now he is surprised by the patrol’s nonchalance at their presence in what is hostile territory. Reed watches with interest and apprehension as they circulate among the men, even the lieutenant.

A woman approaches. Young, but Reed can’t tell what age. Her figure indistinct under loose fitting black pants and white blouse.

“Hey, GI! You buy numba one fuck book,” she asks tonelessly. “Boo coo good pictures.” Reed examines her face, much closer now. Pock marks mar a pretty, round face.

“How much?” Reed asks, taking the book from her hand.

“Five dollar.”

“Two bucks,” he says, flipping through the pages. Yes, indeed, he thinks, boo coo good pictures. His mind drifts to other times in places now far away.

“Numba ten!” she spits scornfully. “Five dollar.”

“Three bucks. Take it or leave it,” Reed offers. The woman hesitates, then agrees. Reed counts out three one dollar military payment certificates--funny money for the war, he calls it. Intended to thwart speculators, the certificates are readily accepted by Vietnamese entrepreneurs everywhere Reed has been so far. She carefully places the money in a small box.

Stickman’s voice calls out. “Hey, Dau! You come over and see papa.” She giggles slightly and walks over to Stickman, box under her arm. Reed watches them talk for a few minutes before they disappear from his view. His attention alternates between wood line, his recent purchase and activity in the Village.


By the time Stickman returns, Reed notices that most of the other women have acquired clients. He’d heard talk about getting laid in the village but it had not occurred to him that guys would do it on patrol. When else, he thinks. It’s not like we get passes to come into the village at night. Reed’s crotch tingles at the thought. The picture book had reminded him how long since he’d held Sarah. Back in The World. Before Nam.

Reed is startled when Stickman approaches. “You wanna go next? Seconds on Dau ain’t bad,” Stickman says with a grin. “And she’s got some really good weed.”

“Well, don’t know, man. We’re on duty,” Reed stammers. His mind balks even as the rest of his body says YES.

“Of course we are but you got a duty to yourself, too, man. I’ll cover for you.”

Reed’s erection swells. “What about the clap?”

“No, sweat, GI,” Stickman says gleefully, tossing a condom packed in foil to Reed. Sheik. Deluxe Ribbed for Greater Sensation, the label proclaims. “Go ahead, she’s in the tall grass on the other side of those bushes.


Dau sits on a poncho liner, legs tucked under her. Except for the blouse loosely draped over her shoulders, she is naked. Reed stands nervously, admiring her small, fine body, now mostly revealed.

“You come here, “ Dau says with authority as she pats the poncho liner beside her. Reed takes a few steps and sits next to her. She produces a joint, lights it and takes a long hit before handing it to Reed. He takes a few puffs. Its soothing effect is not long in coming. They pass the joint back and forth a few times until it is exhausted. Dau kneels in front of Reed, her face not much higher than his own. He inspects her body. Small, well formed breasts. Almost no pubic hair.

“I give numba one fuck. Twenty five dollars.” Reed face reddens. He feels he’s supposed to bargain on the price but his crotch screams Take it. Take it.

“Uh...OK,” he answers. It’s only funny money anyway, he thinks.

“You pay now,” Dau says, all business. Reed feels cheapened by the sight of the bills as he counts them. Dau takes the money, placing it in her cash box. She turns to Reed and expertly pushes him on to his back.


The sun shines on two bodies rolling on the poncho liner. Electricity courses throughout his body. His heart pounds as he revels in Dau’s touch and the feel of her skin against his. He kisses Dau with intense longing and familiarity, drawn into her embrace, finding shelter and release after an eternity of boredom, fear and exhaustion. Their closeness reminds him, too, of how much he is missing. The joy of their union is mixed with the sadness of this place. Where he once had a life, a girlfriend and a future, Reed’s life now centers on this stranger, this moment. Nothing else.


Reed sits atop his hooch in the soft evening light, writing. “Dear Sarah,” he begins. “We’re back on the firebase after three weeks in the bush. So far, it’s been good, a real break after humping the boonies day after day. We had to patrol the road today looking for mines but it wasn’t too bad...I think about you lots and wish I were back with you all the time...”