Wayne Michael DeHart (August, 2022)
(This was written in August of 2022 as an entry into the 2022 National Veterans Creative Arts writing competition for a category described as “Military Experience – Not Poetry” with an 850-word limit. I have since made a few small edits that slightly increased that stringent number, and very recently added a series of significant Writer’s Notes, with photos. (The competition was text-only.) The Notes complete and complement the narrative. I tried to lighten the mood at the end of the notes, for both myself and the reader. But the hourglass is running low, and this one time I’ll “go there.” This is not a war-story website; never was and never will be. They’re a dime a dozen and enough is enough. My next post is also Vietnam-based, but it is light-hearted and hopefully witty and that’s the direction I’d rather go on this topic. The only thing they have in common is that neither are fiction. This one touches the fringes of events which led to my poem, “Incoming” – https://wordvet.net/2022/02/22/incoming/ . It describes in just 174 words the fear, the “crap,” that permeates my mind in the darkness and the depth of most of my nights and which has ruled my life for so many years. And will to the end. I recognize that the relentless river of severe panic that consumes and threatens to drown me can be disconcerting and misunderstood, and thus I generally live in self-isolation to avoid creating uneasiness for myself and others. “Incoming” was written in an attempt to convey the callous, controlling complexity of the poem’s Beast as succinctly as I could. The success or failure of that endeavor can only be determined by you, the reader. WMD 12/27/22)
In the early evening of December 26th, 1970, at a small Army camp across the road from the Marine helicopter facility at Marble Mountain, just south of DaNang, five of us were kicking back with Cokes and beers and stale cookies someone had received from home. The conversation was rambling and the topics random, with multiple voices speaking at once. It was like we were all talking aloud to ourselves, unable to focus on the messages or the messengers in the plywood-partitioned, double-racked quarters.
An intermittent, light rain pattered across the Quonset hut’s tin roof, calling to mind the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Rain on the Roof” and The Cascades’ “Rhythm of the Rain” – two well-worn 45’s of mine left behind in a New Hampshire closet, boxed into silence – amid fleeting flashes of familiar faces back in “the world.”
“Dee, whatcha smiling about over there?”, came the thundering voice of “Baby-San,” still just 19 almost a year into his tour – a brawny, fearless Texan with boyish (hence the good-natured nickname) features and a confident swagger. He was physically intimidating and sometimes volatile, but was generally an affable and likable kid. “Sure ain’t that burnt beak of his,” jabbed Steve from Wisconsin. I had been one of two guys from our advance platoon whose names were drawn to catch the Bob Hope Show at Freedom Hill on Christmas Eve. I lingered so long under a scorching sun that it sautéed two layers off the ridge of my schnoz. I countered with, “Hey, no skin off YOUR nose, Sailor.” Pretty decent comeback, I thought, knowing Steve was still irked about being rejected by the Navy in the summer of ’69. He swigged some Pabst and tipped his boonie toward me in a touche’-like acknowledgment of shared, requisite rapport.
After a prolonged pause, Baby-San and I (the Coke guys) remained in the makeshift room as our beer-drinking compatriots adjourned to a sandbag bunker with the rest of the cookies. He and I exchanged thoughts on who we were and where we might be in ten years. He wanted to be a forest ranger somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. “Exchange this uniform for that one. Exchange this reality for that dream.” “Sounds good, man.” “Yeah, you got that right.” But he looked somber while adding that it was just as likely he’d be hauling trash for a living. “Ain’t no lie, there’s always bugs in the butter.” His tour was almost over and this outwardly-confident short-timer had revealed an unexpected uncertainty about following the path back home, and once there, finding himself. I could only nod and say the obligatory, “Don’t mean nothin’, man.” It was the go-to generic response when one didn’t know what to say, at that time, in that place.
“How about you, Dee. You’re always writin’ letters and stuff. Must have a pack of girls back home, you dog.” I tempted fate, feigning umbrage and giving him a poor man’s stink eye before good-naturedly shaking my head. “I wish.” I joked that this mutt had been kicked to the curb long before being sworn in, then described that “stuff” as what we called “prose and poetry” back in high school. “Would kinda like to be a writer sometime down the road, have lots of thoughts and ideas running through my head. But the truth is I’ll probably be working that garbage truck alongside you, clanging can covers to a Creedence Clearwater song.” He wasn’t buying it. “Seriously, you should write a book about THIS crap. Give ’em the dirty details – the reckless, anything-goes, no-holds-barred shit. Keep it real. No John Wayne jive.” I told him I was thinking more along the line of conventional “word fare,” as opposed to unconventional warfare. “Not looking to make waves, just rhetorically ride them.” He stood and flexed, striking an exaggerated bodybuilder pose. He grunted, “Mention the strong and righteous ‘BS’, as in Baby-San, and we’re good.” (Rest in peace, Al, and I just did.)
“Gotta come up with a good title, title’s everything, Dee.” I pulled out my wallet and handed him a folded index card with a proposed book title from two years earlier – “Three Times Sadness.” “Jeez, man, sounds depressing. Ain’t gonna sell no books that way. What’s it about? What’s your sadness?” I shrugged, telling him I didn’t know yet, that I always write titles before I write stories or poems, then write the latter to fit the former. (His expression read, “Say again?”) I told him I might have a shipload of sadness to write about by then, but he seemed to have checked out. “Dee?” “Yeah?” “Sometimes I wonder: do the guys treat me good because they like me, or are they just afraid I’ll beat their ass?” For a few brief moments, he appeared weary, fatigued, vulnerable – and old beyond his years. “Both, I think.” He let the words sink in for a minute, then his eyes came alive and he nodded approvingly. “Hey, nuthin wrong with that, works for me, brother man.” It was his turn to smile. “Twelve and a wakeup, GI. See ya on the other side.” And then he was gone.
Hours passed and then came the sirens. Showtime. The skies lit up. The images blurred. The night roared.
Christmas was over; the crap was not.
Today, more than five decades and seven seas of sadness later, the book remains an elusive pipe dream.
But I think I know where I can use that title.
RIP “Baby-San” – Alfred “Al” John Kappus, 1951-2014
Thanks, “brother man,” for the ever-present banter and repartee, and specifically for that oft-remembered conversation. Yours was the classic “larger than life” presence, energy in overdrive. Though our paths crossed for only a brief period of time, your encouragement and your inspiration left its mark in a way that you would have wanted, and that I welcomed and understood. And, yes, I will “see ya on the other side” – and it will be my honor.
(Artwork: Charlie Thibodeau / 2022 / painting in his own vivid colors, back here “in the world”)
Charlie is a Marine who came of age just down the road from me in a nearby NH town. We never met in our youth, despite the proximity of our age and location. Soon after first meeting at the VA about six years ago, we stumbled into an awareness that we had dated the same shy, brown-eyed girl way back when Hector was a pup.
Bonnie’s smile made you instinctively smile right back, whatever your mood. And when he and I talked about her, of course we smiled too, remembering her fondly, respectfully, as older gentlemen remember a young lady from days gone by. She very recently left this world behind, but had she known that an unlikely pair of long-ago beaux still reminisced about her warmly, half a century later, I suspect she would have flashed that contagious smile one last time before departing, expressing the sentiment and substance of Baby-San’s words: “Hey . . . works for me.”
Turns out Charlie was serving just up the road a bit from me there in I Corps on that December night described above. Now, despite 3,000 miles of America stretching out between us, we stay in touch, share some late-night laughs and catch each other up on news both mundane and meaningful, while mutually keeping “the crap” out of the chatter, though we both know it lurks like a cancer just below the surface – and always will.
Darkness be damned as we two remain thankful to be among the fortunate ones still blessed to breathe the air, catch the wind, hear the rain on the roof, and behold a sea of stars in the clear night sky. We fight against, and survive, the dangers of the night. Then we embrace the sweet, saving grace of daybreak’s first light. And in those inevitable, recurring moments when the world is too heavy and our resilience is too light, he eats ice cream and turns to his canvas and I eat dark chocolate and turn to this keyboard – both of us coping and fighting the good fight, a day at a time, as best we can, each in our own way.
These first four photos were taken by me, using a Kodak Instamatic camera, from a Camp Baxter guard tower fronting the Marble Mountain Air Facility (then home to Marines MAG-16, supplemented by an Army helicopter company & 5th Special Forces), with the South China Sea in the background. There are actually five fabled Marble Mountains, the northernmost of them standing strong in the distance in the first pic, which was taken facing south along the coastal road. (Seventeen Green Berets were killed at Marble Mountain on August 23rd, 1968 – the largest loss of life in a single attack in Special Forces history.) Several choppers can be seen “forming up” above the facility in the second photo. The two bottom pics show fortified, armor-plated, 10-wheel “deuce-and-a-half” gun trucks traveling north toward DaNang. These trucks were rigged out – uniquely modified and equipped, each with a catchy name emblazoned boldly on the side. They primarily protected transportation units, serving as escorts for convoys, and were not to be messed with due to the trucks’ maneuverability and formidable weaponry, matched by the aggressive, “bring it on” mentality of its crew.
The last photo was taken by me from one of two towers that faced northwest into a tiny civilian/drug sales area next to a seemingly out-of-place and unattended temple. The camp’s “cursed tower,” visible just to the right in the pic and further away than it appears at that angle, was the site of several personnel losses during my time there, one of them highly personal and particularly distressing to me. Roger arrived in-country just days before his 19th birthday and took his last breath in that tower just two months later – on my own birthday, nine days before my tour ended. Though Baxter served as my “home base” for most of my 365 days in-country, my classified courier designation had me in unrestricted movement status, traveling alone around RVN for 5-10 days each month, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse. The blessing was simply time spent away from the camp, which gained a lot of notoriety for a series of reprehensible events and situations that coincided with my time there. The curse was feeling disconnected and isolated out on the road by myself, engaging in fleeting interactions with nameless faces in unfamiliar places, with too much time to think but not enough time to understand. The saving grace was that I did my job and I did it well. Then I came home.
Thirteen years later, the Beast burst into my life, and I realized I had never left, and now I know I never will.
So be it.
Hitting some lighter notes . . .
That night it was Coke, but sometimes it was Pepsi, sometimes a Fanta flavor. A-V-A-I-L-A-B-I-L-I-T-Y !
( I have no clue what was going on with that center-forehead clump of hair. Looks like a burnt chicken leg.)
The occasional silver linings about being in RVN: avoiding haircuts, wearing weathered and worn boots, saluting maybe two times per month, with half of those being of the one-finger variety. Nobody cared, except on those one or two days a month when I was in Saigon. Some of those junior officers down there just couldn’t resist enforcing the saluting part of being a soldier. I humored them to avoid barriers because the warm, welcoming ladies of Tu Do Street were waiting and offered a far better evening ambience than the usually-empty transient barracks.
Silver linings, indeed.
“These Boots Were Made for Walkin'”
(Here I am pondering my existence while in a horizontal position. I got no answers.)
Taken right after I got back from R&R in Taipei. Reality check. Hard eyes. Cold stare.
Go ahead, make my day. “Frick this crap” mood. (I didn’t like this guy. Routinely cursed him out, to no avail.)
And of course I still have those original, referenced “two well-worn 45’s of mine” – only now in a different NH closet. Bought both new from Greenlaw’s Music Store in Laconia, NH. “Rain on the Roof” in 1966 and “Rhythm of the Rain” in 1963.
Even better with sound . . .