Friday, December 08, 2006

Combat Mimeographer

[More memories of Vietnam 35 years after the fact. Mostly accurate.]

As company clerk, one of my more frustrating and tedious jobs was reproducing documents. My most regular reproduction task was preparing and distributing company rosters to battalion headquarters. The roster was the official information source on Alpha Company, the primary record for tracking personnel and related actions. The roster ran about 10 to 12 pages and distribution required about 10 copies. Reproduction capabilities for an infantry battalion in 1971 Vietnam were primitive, even by contemporary standards. Automated equipment housed in olive drab semi-trailers churned out reams of official documents at brigade and higher headquarters–you could hear the machine-gun rhythm of typing machines when you walked by the trailers–but in my part of the world, printing for distribution meant manual typing and mimeographing.

Every two weeks I revised, re-typed and mimeographed the company roster which listed each member of the company by name, Social Security number, rank, date of rank, date to return from Vietnam and date when current enlistment expires. The “print medium” was a thin plastic-like stencil (waxed mulberry paper with a stiff card backing, according to Wikipedia). Typewriter keys cut through the stencil to create a printing template. Typing stencils was tedious and slow in a busy orderly room where interruptions were common. The roster data was lots of numbers, which I never learned to type well (still can’t). Errors could be corrected with a fluid that filled in the cut-out but the corrected version might turn out unclear, especially if I made another mistake in the same place or even nearby.

Once I had my stencil, actually running the mimeograph was another tedious process. My battalion had one mimeograph machine (no doubt it had some military equipment nomenclature like M-A13-410, Machine, Duplicator, Stencil and cost five times the civilian version) that served headquarters as well as the five line companies. Ours was a typical mimeograph with auto paper feed and a print drum that was also a reservoir for the mimeograph ink. Hand cranked. Except that our drum leaked and could not be filled. Instead, I poured ink into a small can, coated the drum surface with ink using a shaving brush, attached the stencil, ran a few copies, lifted the stencil, applied more ink and printed until the ink ran out. I think I got about four or five copies per application, so a complete run would take about 20 applications. Messy. Slow. Very slow.

Less frequently I mimeographed company orders. These were orders issued by the company commander as required by military policies. Company orders designated individual responsibilities, such the company drug control officer, the company enlisted representative to the battalion drug control council (this was the era of the first war on drugs which began in Vietnam in 1971; we lost that one, too), paymaster or mail clerk. Each change of command required an entirely new set of orders signed by the new commander. I prepared orders for two command changes. A change in key personnel–a new mail clerk, for example–required a new order. A new first sergeant usually meant about five or six new orders.

Company orders were even more tedious than the roster. They required much more typing–lots of standard language, headings and authority citations (again, more numbers). No one really cared about the orders except the inspectors. The only requirement was that they be in place and current for inspection. I was pretty much on my own, especially under one particularly dysfunctional first sergeant, in preparing the orders. I designated a known heroin user as our drug control council representative and even signed the commander’s name when he was off in the field. I guess we could have sent the orders to the firebase when the company came in but no one ever seemed to think they were worth the effort.

I printed company orders on the same mimeograph machine. The only difference was that orders were on legal size paper printed front and back, head to toe so that they could be read in a file without removing the binder. The larger size reduced the number of copies per inking and aligning front and back properly required care. I hated company orders more than the roster. What I remember most is standing at the machine, painting ink, cranking the drum, over and over and over.

Working with a mimeograph machine, like Proust tasting his madeleine, conjured memories of things past. The smell of that ink recalled grade school and high school tests that had only been printed not long before. (Now I could appreciate the effort that went into producing tests and syllabi in pre-photocopy days.) Those were days of innocence and peace unless, of course, you count the possibility of nuclear annihilation, compared to the past five months when annihilation seemed far less abstract. No doubt that smell would bring back memories of Vietnam, just like the sound of a Huey flying overhead, but I’ve seen neither mimeograph nor its product since Vietnam.

Tedious it may have been but it was still Good Time: one more day past in Vietnam another day closer to home. No one was shooting at me, nor was that even likely. I had a bed at night, regular showers and hot food. I didn't have to squat over a hole to take a shit. The living environment at Bien Hoa Army Base was frontier rugged compared to my previous American middle class life but sheer luxury compared to life in the field.

Tedium. Safety. Comfort. Words forever associated in my memory.


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