Remembering having not been there
Maybe if I had been in battle with them, maybe if one of them had gotten killed, I would remember their names. But as it is — and call it a by-product of military training — I remember only where they were from. Unlike other vets, being reminded that 25 years ago the Vietnam War ended didn’t jog my memory.
The guys I remember are the ones I lived with the final year I was in the Army at Fort Hood, Texas, outside Killeen. There were seven of us in an eight-man room. Across from me was the Greek guy from Queens, New York. Dark hair, talked fast, smoked constantly. He was a draftee, like me. He was the only one in the room who had been to Vietnam. He “re-upped” (extended his active duty service time) for another three years just to get out of ‘Nam. He was never sure he had made the right decision.
A bunk down from him was the hot-rodder from Tennessee. He had a 1967 ‘Vette — 427 engine, side exhaust pipes, four-speed. I drove it once when he left the keys with me when he had to go home on emergency leave. I got it turned sideways down Highway 190 outside Killeen after dropping him off at the airport — gas pedal to floor, the transmission in second gear. He was the resident marijuana dealer, going down to Laredo once a month to score pot for $70 a pound. I remember watching him dump a couple of pounds on his bunk one day, Baggies in hand, ready to weigh out $15 ounces. Maybe that’s why the Killeen cops and MPs followed me around the weekend I had his ‘Vette.
Next to him was the kid from Michigan. He liked hallucinogens. His favorite pastime was trippin’ with his headphones wired to a Doors album. Stereo equipment was cheap in the military, and most everyone had some sort of system set up in their upright lockers. When not detached from reality, he spent time writing congressmen, senators, and high-ranking Army officers requesting orders to go to Vietnam. For months he dogged whomever he thought had the power to send him there. His brother had been killed in southeast Asia. In late 1972, when the U.S. was withdrawing troops from Vietnam, he got orders to go. I remember him smiling the whole day he was packing his duffel bag to leave. It was the first time I had ever seen him smile.
Across from him was a black guy from Indianapolis. Short, stocky, a lot of mouth, and street-smart. For a while, he kept a turtle he had found outside near the barracks in a shoe box under his bunk. For weeks I stared at that shoe box, wondering if he was feeding the turtle. When I brought the subject up, he told me to mind my own business. I kept asking about him caring for the turtle; he started telling me to “Fuck off.” Finally one Saturday, we began yelling about the turtle and took to bouncing our chests off each other like a couple of mountain rams. Someone in the room told us to shut up. It ended. The next day the turtle was gone and we both made the effort to stay clear of each other, as much as one could when sharing living space.
The cook from Chicago lived next to the guy from Indianapolis. He didn’t hang around much in the room. Being a cook, he left for the mess hall around 4 a.m. and many nights slept elsewhere. I figured he needed another “crib” because he got up early and went to bed early. When he was around, he played the best in soul and blues music through a small cassette player. He liked to sing along with the music while putting on his white cook’s uniform before he headed off to sweat over a stove. In the early morning, Howlin’ Wolf can take on a special meaning.
The kid from Kansas in the next bunk didn’t like the cook’s music or that he sang soul and blues tunes before the birds had awakened. But he was just 18, right out of high school, sucked into the Army by some smooth-talkin’ recruiter. He was mostly scared of us all. We were nothing like the Army recruiter had told him about when it came to fellow GIs. He quietly complained to the company’s first sergeant, who took him for a sissy.
I had the best job of all of them, assigned to a separate battalion, operating an old vacuum tube Univac punch card processor, a kind of early computer that was programmed by moving wires around on a circuit board. I worked evenings and never pulled guard duty or KP or went out into the field. The other guys in the room resented that. But I figured it was just luck — that and 96 hours of college credit. The Army was desperate for guys who knew more than how to fire an M-16, though we all knew how to do that.
My luck wasn’t that great when I first got to Hood. I was fresh out of basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, and somehow my personnel papers didn’t follow me to Texas. Without the paperwork, there was no way to cut orders assigning me to a specific company. So I was sent to a transitional unit to wait for my papers to reappear. It was all very Kafkaesque.
No orders meant I couldn’t get paid. No pay meant no money. I wouldn’t starve; there was always the mess hall. But without cash, I couldn’t get beer, cigarettes, go to a movie, take a bus to town to ogle the hookers, do my laundry, or get a haircut. Getting a haircut was a priority. Some officers, throwing their bars and stars and ribbon insignia around, loved to berate young, lower-ranking enlisted men for having their hair in violation of Army regulations. It was the worst kind of insult, to be stopped on post, on the sidewalk, in front of scores of other GIs, and have some “lifer” (career military person) chew your ass for having long hair. Having cash was essential to prevent such a confrontation.
To get it, I started pulling other guys’ KP. A few of the other GIs were like me — caught in some bureaucratic purgatory of having no real identity in the Army. But those guys never seemed to stay around long. Weeks went by for me in this shadow land of namelessness. Other guys in the transitional company were but a few days out of Vietnam. They’d fly to Oakland, spend a day or night, and then land at Fort Hood for “processing.” Most were short-timers itching to get out of the Army. Some had legitimately done their tour; others, the Army just wanted them out. They were damaged. The war had taken its toll. There was nothing normal about them or the situation we were in. KP was not something they would do.
So they came to me. Word had gotten around. I took on a lot of different names working the mess hall. In the morning, the sergeant in charge would ask me who I was that day. Was I a Smith? A Romano? A Washington? I was whoever paid me, so I could get my hair cut and have clean fatigues to wear.
I didn’t have many days off, and I was too frightened of some of my “clients” to negotiate a better payment. Most times, I pulled the 16- or 17-hour day for $5 or $10. Because the other GIs knew I was a buck private and without the security of having orders to a particular unit — essentially stuck to a routine of survival, waiting for some faceless clerk to discover the packet of papers giving me my identity back — I didn’t have the luxury of turning down the request to take another’s KP. The only way to have a day off was to make sure I wasn’t in my bunk in the early morning. But if I stayed away too long, it meant what few things I had in my footlocker, plus maybe my bedding, would be stolen.
I tried one morning to sleep until 6. But I was awakened by someone sitting on my chest. The GI, high on whatever, asked, “You the guy who does KP?”
“Yes,” I said. “Please get off my chest.” He didn’t.
“You gotta take mine,” he ordered.
“I can’t. I need a break; I need to sleep, to rest.”
“You gotta take mine,” he said again. This time his face was up against mine. I saw his bloodshot eyes, smelled his beer breath. “How much?” he asked.
A few nights before, stumbling back to the barracks after another day in the kitchen, I had to walk around a group of soldiers parked on the steps leading up to the second floor of the barracks. They were nodding out; syringes lay at their feet. Heroin was cheap and plentiful in Vietnam. In Texas, it was a bit of hustle. I wondered if the guy sitting on my chest had the habit. There was no need to test his desperation.
“Ten bucks,” I answered.
“Five,” he said, and he got up and threw the bill on my chest. I was another name again.
I don’t remember his name and never asked him where he was from.
Contact Bruce Rodgers at 816-218-6776 or email@example.com.