November 1970, Angeles City/Clark Air Base, Philippines
“Don’t touch the cards!” the dealer snapped, her voice threatening. The large tuxedoed Filipino standing beside her swiveled his head in our direction, his face hard, eyes alert. I pulled my hand back quickly, startled at the sharpness of the command. She was beautiful, in a heavily made-up, Oriental way, but her eyes and voice were as cold as the steel door I had come through to get to this tiny casino in the basement of the Oasis.
I was already nervous, put on edge by the air of impending violence that permeated Angeles City. The bunkers and soldiers guarding the entrance to the Oasis were bad enough, but the guys in tuxedos were scarier. Reminded me of Odd Job, the guy with the lethal hat in the Bond movies. The guarded elevator to the basement, the steel door with the little slot where you showed your ID, and the large men with tight suits and hard faces standing around the fringes of the room had each escalated my fear ‘til I could barely look at my cards without trembling.
I waited ‘til Mata Hari was done dealing, and the others at the little blackjack table had reached for their cards before sliding my cards close and checking the hand. Not like Vegas, I thought. These people take their games too seriously. After a moment of calculation, I pushed the cards away and left the table. Never much liked card games anyway, I thought, looking around the room. I saw Morton at the bar and moseyed his way.
“These people are scary, huh!” I said as I slid onto a stool next to him.
“Scary? Nah, they’re just weird!” Morton answered. “Can’t let these gooks scare us Georgia boys! We gotta go in there and bust their asses!”
“Gooks?” I said, laughing. “I hate to break it to you, Morton, but these ain’t gooks! These are what they call ‘Flips.’ Filipinos. They speak freakin’ Spanish. At least the ones that have been to school. They’re as European as we are.”
“I ain’t no European! I’m an American!” Morton looked pissed. He and I were the only guys from Georgia in our UPT class, and somehow we’d ended up on the same flight over to Southeast Asia. We had hung out some during the past year, but despite being homeboys, we weren’t exactly fast friends. He wore his Georgia boy identity like a badge of honor. I was a little more low key. I’d had enough of people thinking that because I was from Georgia I naturally shared their racist, xenophobic attitudes toward the world.
“Yeah, I know, but I mean like we were both colonies… man, they’ve been speaking Spanish here longer than the US has been a country, I mean… oh, well, forget it. Anyway, these guys are supposed to be our friends. They just make me a little nervous. Sorta tight about their card games, all that spook shit with the elevator, you know. Kinda weird.”
“Yeah, maybe so.” We drank in silence for a few sips. “But shit, the drinks are free, what the hell!” he added. I had to agree. I ordered another gin and tonic and tried to relax.
An hour or so of roulette and slots and we headed back to the base. Passing the bunkers, I still felt nervous, and I wondered: who is the enemy in their war? Some kind of revolution going on, I guess. Manila’s not far south of here.
The next morning, things got even more interesting. We managed to sleep well, despite the gecko or two that croaked from the wall up near the ceiling several times during the night, and were geared up and in a chopper by eight o’clock. The chopper took off from a pad in the narrow valley and zoomed nearly straight up, depositing us on the edge of a cliff near the top of the green mountains that ringed Clark Air Base.
Though it was a relatively short flight, it felt like we had entered another world. We found ourselves in the middle of a tropical rain forest. Tall trees and several levels of vine-draped canopy nearly shut out the sun in much of the forest, and where the trees were more spread out, a dense under-story vegetation covered the ground. The clearing where the chopper deposited us was the only earth visible as we dropped in to land.
We piled out of the chopper and were greeted by a few sergeants and a horde of strange dark little men with grizzled hair and beards, wearing next-to-nothing. Over the course of the morning, we find out that these Negritos are among the original inhabitants of the Philippine Islands, and they’ve lived in these mountain jungles – well, we don’t know how long they’ve lived here, but it’s a very long time! They don’t speak English, Spanish, or anything that sounds like anything we’ve ever heard before. Only one or two seem to understand English and they relay our sergeants’ instructions to the rest.
They seem very happy to share with us their incredible wealth of knowledge about how to survive in the jungle. They explain to us how they had crafted, from old automobile springs, the very sharp machetes that are their primary weapon and tool – though it’s hard to imagine how they get hold of the springs or a suitable forge way up here – and they then demonstrate how to use the machetes. It’s an impressive demonstration. In this little guy’s hands, this heavy slab of steel is as effective as an axe and as delicate as a chef’s knife.
He holds a piece of green bamboo about four inches in diameter in his left hand, and raising the machete high, brings it down forcefully onto the culm, deftly slicing through it completely – and without harming his hand. He picks up the single section of bamboo he has cut from the pole, the nodes intact on each end, and makes four quick slices in the center of the foot-long piece. Wielding the big knife as delicately as any chef, he uses the base of the blade to flick out the rectangular piece he has cut out, opening a small door in the section. He proceeds to fill the section of bamboo with rice scooped from a huge burlap sack nearby, adds water, returns the cover, and places the bamboo in the coals of a small fire. An hour later, he serves us perfect rice.
While the rice was cooking, he prepared a number of other dishes, most of which were wrapped in what appeared to be banana leaves – also placed on the coals – and which yielded a variety of delicious, unnamed foods. The sergeant, who walked around smiling during most of this process, filling in the gaps with a running banter, assured us that all this comes from the surrounding jungle and could be used to survive should we find ourselves in need of such skills. After the meal, we got a tour revealing the sources of the food available in this green wonderland, and lots of tips on how to find it and harvest it. It’s all pretty freakin’ mysterious to us, but we follow along, mouths hanging open, stunned at the sheer volume of information we are being fed. But this was just the appetizer. The main course in jungle survival 101 was yet to come: hide and seek, Negrito style.
The idea of this game was simple: we go out into the jungle and hide, and the Negritos come and find us. What made it work was that we were given a small wooden chit which we were to surrender to the man who found us. He could then exchange the chit for a large bag of rice.
We were given about a half-hour head start, so, confident in my south-Georgia-honed woods skill, I barreled as far into the surrounding jungle as I dared, found the densest cluster of vegetation I could spot and then spent some fifteen minutes crawling, twisting, pulling and fighting my way into the center of this vine and brush thicket. I had just settled down, still a bit breathless from the effort and noting that the half-hour was up, when a grizzled little man in a crouch walked up to me with his hand out, smiling. Astounded and chagrined, I gave him my chit and followed him back out of my arduously achieved hiding place and back to the clearing to join the rest of my shame-faced buddies.
We concluded, in later rehashing of the day, that the primary goal of the exercise was to teach us one thing: you can run, but you can’t hide.
The departure from our mountain-top adventure was the most exciting ride I’ve ever been on, and was probably a chopper pilot’s joke on all us fixed-wing jockeys. He lifted the chopper off the pad a few feet, glided to the edge of the very high cliff we were perched on, and dropped straight down. Our bodies floated off the metal deck, and we were all grabbing for webbing, our neighbors’ head or anything handy to secure ourselves. I nearly lost my (wilderness) lunch.
It was a riot.
In-country. What does the term mean? Sounds innocuous. It was one of many bland, bureaucratic labels for unspeakable horrors. But that was one of the realities of the American war in Vietnam. My arrival in-country was similarly bland, lost in the haze of a steaming tarmac, a colorless, too-bright sky, and long droning hours on metal seats with nylon webbing in the windowless belly of a C-141…
November 10 or 11, 1970 – Ton Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam.
Not sure what day it is now, not sure if I’m awake or sleeping, after sleeping the fitful dream-sleep of long hours airborne, I stumble down the aisle of the small commercial jet, step onto the ramp and gasp in the glare and suffocating humidity. One glance around from the top of the ramp — asphalt and jet noise assault nose and ears; low buildings and a wavering line of green in the distance are the only links to reality, the only hints that I have arrived in Vietnam.
Grasping the hand rail and looking down the steep steps, clutching my orders, I move away from the world of American Airlines and into whatever is out there waiting for me. Which at the moment is a C-141 with engines whining, anxious to get us on board and be off for Da Nang. I float along, unaware of any intent to walk, pulled be the movement of the group. My mind reels. Is this really Vietnam? It could be Dallas. It all feels so bland, so calm.
Is this all there is?
Shouldn’t something dramatic be happening to me? This moment I have dreaded for years, this moment that never seemed possible, this arrival: here it is, here I am, but it’s just another walk across an asphalt expanse, head pounding from the heat and blinding whiteness of the sky.
Do I feel any different? I don’t even feel like I’m here.
Airborne again, strapped to a wall, flying sideways with no windows, reality recedes ever further away: even up and down, forward and backward are blurred, confused. I long for the cockpit, for windows, visual orientation to the world. The big turbo-props bore their insistent sound, so different from the jet-whine, into my bones; vibration becomes my world, numbing mind and body.
Where is Danielson? He’s going to Da Nang, too. Should be here somewhere. So much for the respect and deference these gold bars and silver wings promised. We’re cattle here. Nobody makes eye contact or speaks. Not that there would be any point. We sleep, or pretend to, or dream we are.
There is no time. Only the eternal, droning, vibrating moment.
Then we’re in the landing pattern. I can tell because there is definite movement, definite change in the sound of the engines. A solid thump and we’re on the ground. And then we’re rolling, we stop, we walk back out into the same heat, the same light, the same asphalt, the same jet noise.
Have we moved? Or was that just a carnival ride in a box, a simulated flight?
Where are we?
I walk across the endless tarmac, into shabby buildings where people look at my orders and point. I follow the crowds, the finger points. Having seen nothing on the way here, I have no sense of where I am. No sense of really being somewhere.
So this is Vietnam. Da Nang Air Base.
It could be anywhere, just hotter, more banana trees.
Maybe it’s better this way.