“ShortRound – A December 9, 1970 Tale”

She was angelic – beautiful but not all-made-up gorgeous if you know the type.  Of course, Olive Drab Air Force garb helps not  a whit to determine differentiations. But her smile was more than beautiful: beatific enough to melt the steel shield I had dropped since leaving my last combat assignment.

“You gonna take a shower, Marine?” she asked, pointing down the ever-so-long diminishing to a vanishing point hallway of the 95th Medical Evacuation Hospital at DaNang Air Force Base somewhere South of the big airstip. I had been driven there after I wrote my story, made an abortive MARS radio-phone call in which I was told I could not tell my Mother “I got hit,” but did anyway and the gist of the exchange was she did not know what I was saying – and neither did I – as both she and Dad were walking out the front door en route to family in Denver for the Christmas holidays.  Little did I know that call would cost me a new front door for the Richards’ family manse.

Nurse beautiful pointed again and grinned, kind of half-questioningly: “We got hot water and it’s indoors!”  The naked plead in her tone perhaps was as much for the clean white sheets and to maintain squadbay discipline as for me to take a gaddam shower and quit stinking up her ward and her life.  Whatever her motive, I looked again and this time actually saw this steely-eyed short-cropped brunette – yet billowy as if proving she heeded not military precision in well-coiffed nursehood.  Her eyes sparkled even more than that hopefull smile hidden behind glimpses of “I will be obeyed” tone couched in soft, simple words directly delivered.  Whatever.

I was in love.  Even after enduring the callous and disrespectful of Navy Hospitalmen, Corpsmen which used to be pronounced properly by any President comments on the dirty, absolutely filthy battle dressing wound around my unkempt and still leaking and scabbed over head.  My hair was well past regulation and I had not shaved in almost a week.  Mud and blood coated my camouflaged utilities, all with slight-to-moderate tears up near the shoulders and chest and my left arm covering.  “You mean some sailor actually put this compress on?  What’d you do? Crawl a mile in the mud just to make it less white?”

And it got worse: “you’re the Marine who was reported AWOL from Charlie Med and then from us too,” a doctor asked.  “What’d you do go to Dogpatch for a quickie before coming here?  Get him a double-shot of penicillin,” he ordered.

I spoke: “check the med-evac tag, doctor.  The corpsman at 2/5 Battalion Aid gave me 1.2 million units already.  And yes, I did a bit of crawling from where I got his the first time and maybe a second time – I didn’t keep count and then after The Doc at Hill 25 got me patched up I helped carry out a probably dead ARVIN lieutenant who was going back to Saigon in the morning for his wedding, but instead now for his funeral.  His dad was the senior Vietnamese NCO on the hill, too.  So pardon the fuck outta me for showing up at your palace all mussed!”  Then I sat down and said no more while the med people at receiving checked on the corpsman’s work in pulling out the shrapnel and debriding the openings I had acquired some hours earlier at the crack of December 9, 197o, my last day in The Bush, in Vietnam, I Corps, Quang Nam Province.  Receiving was not my finest moment.

And here I was blowing it again.  Nurse Wonderful wanted me to parade past a hospital ward I could tell was full of clean-n-tidy REMFs, chairborne commandoes and all.  So I began by unbuttoning my ripped and crudded up blouse as I began walking the line towards the shower door a mile away.  I was already out of my skivvyless cammie trousers (I had been relieved of my jungle boots back at receiving and since I went sockless to avoid extra jungle-rot done well, I was shower-ready by halfway there. Nurse Wondermuss was just off my port stern picking up my casualties and handing me towel and soap and what I later learned was a washcloth…wonder what that’s used for?

Most everything was a blurr and kept flashing in and out of focus: for a moment I was tredding terrazzo en route to blissful shower. Hot water?  Huh? The next moment I was back at Landing Zone Baldy being told that since I came so late in the day on the only bird (Sikorsky CH-46 SeaKnight) twin-rotor helicopter which was the last bird out of Division Rear at Camp Reasoner, the Recon Battalion Landing Zone, at the 1st Marine Division Hill 327 headquarters to make it out in the middle of a dayslong inclement “socked in” weather pattern.  I knew 46s actually had better performance in heavy humidity weather so the notion that this was the only “bird available” to take me out to The Bush where I might find grunts who walked point on patrol so I could take their pictures and write their stories for Stars & stripes Pacific with me but a month or so left in my tour give me a triple-shot of WhatTheFuck, Over? The only jeep leaving was going out Baldy’s back door, heading West on Mine Alley towards Que Son City, the district head city for the Vietnamese.  Intel said the 98th C Division was in the high Que Son Mountains and ringed the highground platoon permanent posts along the route.  Just fucking glorious. I usually operated off the East end of Baldy where my buds from Alpha CUPP worked – but the Seventh Marine Regiment no longer was in the Que Son Valley – they had been pulled back to Division Rear areas and the 5th Marines were at Baldy, having left the deadly, booby-trapped and ambushed Arizona Territory, that great expanse of elephant grass and worse between Charlie Ridge and Song (River) Vu Gia and the Go Noi Island-Football Island long-fought-over since probably Chinese Invasion times and through French occupation and World War II southern edge of Arizona and Dodge City, terms of terror and legend from ages past – like 1968 and ’69. I had spent the past few months after I&I (and a brief stint of in-country R&R) late the past Summer at An Hoa, the 5th Marines huge combat base smack dab in the middle of miles and miles of razor-edged sawgrass hiding battalions of NVA, the Viet Cong having been mostly exterminated by the ’68 Tet Offensive (that well may have been Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nuyen Giap’s objective of the whole affair after all) as well as the improved upon “surprise firing devices” (booby traps, daisy-chain lines or rings of unexploded ordinance attached by det{onation}cord, punjii stakes and other welcome mats first constructed years before to welcome Delta Company 1/9 after its sojurn “Up North” along the Demilitarized Zone…Delta Company, 1st Battalion, Ninth Marine Regiment, the original and real “Walking Dead” had the same regiment it tussled with up North trailing its every movement and moment in The Arizona. The NVA high command had so ordered Delta’s destruction after some D/1/9 troopies had inserted Ace of Spades playing cards in the extra smiles left on some NVA soldier’s neck and that would not stand, regardless of the not-at-all apocryphal tales of cut penises and gonads stuffed in the mouths of Marine casualties – and then sewn shut – while the Jarhead still was alive.  It was that kind of war – the usual shit in other words. And I was a man with a $1,600 pricetag on his head – hopefully reproductive organs intact and breathing for Hanoi display – communists seemed to prize propagandists from the other side and put bounties on us the day we got our Military Occupation Specialties (MOS) and mine was writer.  I glommed onto the photographer bit without sanction but became accepted nonetheless. And it also kept me from having to team up with a photog and by Late November 1970 all the ones I trusted out in the bush had rotated back home. And to make matters sweeter I had the only underwater-capable camera in the division public affairs/photo sections: higher up had determined we were so soon outta here they packed up their specialty photo gear and shipped it back to The Left Coast and, thus, the Nikonos II underwater camera I bought from Captain J. P. Novak for something like 30-bucks was my ticket to monsoon photo operations – and it kept me out of The Rear with its increasing dangers of lifers, loose grenades (some possibly deliberate) racial tension which did not exist in The Bush were Americans came in but one flavor – Marine Green.  Besides, I had access to intoxicants aplenty in Regimental Rear areas, especially at LZ Baldy a former Army Americal Division landing zone along the border of I and II Corps, separating The Central Highlands from I (pronounced “Eye”) Corps and II (Number 2 pronunciation) Corps.  Marines are special.  Why in either late ’69 or mid-1970 public relations flacks at Saigon’s Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) held a special press conference to announce that, finally, the U. S. Army had sustained – percentage-wise – more casualties that their Marine brethren in “th’Nahm.” So, there!  Wading through shit-speckled rice paddie water was so much simpler and cleaner than anyone’s rear area.  Since I got my court-martial busted young ass to Vietnam Captain J.P. (For) Novak (Committee) had committed my sorry spectacle of private first classed-ness to The Bush, especially with the  Seventh Marines based out of LZ Baldy.  That and the Que Son Mountains, rising out of a sput in the Annamite Cordillera jutting like a heavy, thick-bladed dagger right at the heart of DaNang, the second-largest city and largest natural port in all of South Vietnam.  Once a month I’d have to hitch a ride by Highway 1 truck or jeep or catch a helo back to DaNang and the 1st Marine Division rear just North and West of DaNang to get paid, pick up more supplies and treats for some favored grunts, get well blued, screwed and tattooed for a night at the DaNang Press Club until October or so run by Marines along the DaNang River, with the enlisted club, a civilian favorite – we were not the only ones to desire escape from suck-up-to-sillyvillian-reporters ossifers of Marine or army rank – grab a steak and spaghetti with a bottle of Mateus Rose and some wonderful French bred, chug many cold beers, visit with some reporter and college-crowd hangers-on friends in their assigned rooms across the mud parking lot for some recreational breathing, and then skip out the gate in search of early morning procreative practice events.  Until the 7th got pulled back and I later got shafted by jungle rot and had to return from An Hoa as well to become “Corporal of The Guard” nightly (with concomitant late-sleeping privileges) until the oozing sores healed and I got reposted back to An-fucking-Hoa and The Fifth again.  But that’s another story. In mid-November I got called back to DaNang, ostensibly to decide what the hell to do with me.  I was opting for an extension of my 12-month tour come January and take a month off anywhere in the world (Johannesburg, S.A., with a begged-, borrowed-, or stolen five grand to buy gold at chickenfeed prices and scarf up on English speaking, Non-American, surfing, fucking, eating and drinking…but, alas, I had just entered negotiation with the laughably labeled “Career Counselor” people when a call came in for me from the Okinawa-based Stars & Stripes Pacific.  Someone, apparently, had squealed: I had the only proven monsoon-capable camera and the combat photos released, especially of Marines walking point from both perspectives and they wanted to know would I accept the charge to do a double-truck (two facing pages) photo-and-copy assignment about Marines who walk point?  Anything.  Just get me outta the rear and let me put my bush hat back on (having left the helmet which resided between my combat booted ankles aboard the insert-chopper, said steel pot protecting my three best friends. Of course, I will so accept.  Now, all I had to do is wait for a break in the rain covering central Vietnam like a wet wool blanket and hitch a ride somewhere safe and sane away from this dangerous place.  Was a race riot the night before in the enlisted club at division rear: first time ever I had heard of such in a Marine outfit.  I was a paid-up (free) member of The Sandbaggers NCO club but never had set foot in the place – a Marx rule, but I forgot which, Harpo, Chico or Karl, said I’d never join a club that would have me as a member: and there I was a member of a pretty exclusive club to begin with, but I didn’t have to drink or smoke with any them bastids, did I?

Then I was back at division rear, trudging up the steep grade to the Public Affairs shack, just below the division’s headquarters setup.  I walked in with my packframe, camera gear and flak jacket and bush hat – with a distinctive rip from the shrapnel that sliced through one edge as it covered my sleeping form: the one and only time ever I slept in a bunker and behind barbed wire in nearly a year in The Bush.  Stupid fucker.  Deserved all this shit!

I saw Darbs and Davis and of course the lifers as I ignored the looks of fear and wonder. I went to the reefer along the hallway where I wrote my copy and captions and pulled out a beer and finished it in one gulp and grabbed another and then and only then did I put paper into the typewriter and began my short story of Staff Sergeant Pasco’s premonition of the night I got premonitioned.

“We heard you were on top of a bunker with a ’60 holding off the hordes,” blurted Staff Sergeant Merriman, who sucked his way between lifers and snuffies with grace and graciousness.  “You’re listed as either MIA or KIA at division and Charlie Med, the Marine casualty collection-treatment point along Highway 1 just below the division wires en route to the Freedom Hill shopping and entertainment complex and then Dogpatch, the unofficial and never-by-me visited “entertainment” facilities of the unofficial kind before you got to the DaNang Air Base.  “Charlie Med,” Stoney Merriman said,  “has you listed AWOL for not being on the priority med-evac chopper they sent to get you.”

“Put an ARVIN Ruff-Puff lieutenant on the bird and since I hadn’t found my glasses yet, I declined the invite to flight, Stoney,” I murmured.  Someone brought me a third beer.  “The skipper here?” I asked because by then I had gathered the remaining writers and some photographers were coming in the Quonset hut’s open door to see the freakshow.

And then I was in casualty receiving at 95th Medevac – MASH truncated if you will – and someone was taking my blood pressure. Mobile Air Surgical Evacuation Hospital, I seem to recall near five decades later.

“How you doin’?” someone asked.  I didn’t reply. I was typing about Pasco, whom I had met in the mountains between Charlie Ridge and The Que Sons on an offshoot operation just after “Pickens Forest”, the first “Named” operation for Marines in more than a year.  Rather than bunch us all up and go out a do gallant with our NVA opposite numbers with soul-stirring names like Operation Starlight, Union, and the rest, it was determined that the best use of American flesh was to leave those dirty, ungrateful, dangerous low-minded grunts – the infantry – out in the field permanent like instead of wasting time cleaning them up all at once and then sending them back out gallantly. So I was a mite bitter, ya think? I just grunted. Something about nearly missing my ticket for a flight home.

“Remarkably low,” the disembodied and unidentified voice said.  I didn’t tell him about being deaf and blind for who knows how long and wondering if I’d live despite the copper-tasting sticky stuff filming my face, arms, shoulders, chest and back.  So I was bleeding everywhere?  Went into tantric yoga breathing techniques – of at least that’s what I though it was: breathe in through the nose somewhat slowly and steadily, letting the diaphragm expand downward and dropping into the lower abdominal cavity, pushing stomach and other organs downward and if not too incongruous, upward at the same time.  Hold for as many counts up to four as possible.  Breathe out in a fairly rapid gush through the mouth…hold up to four and repeat and after each three, four or five series, add one or two to each count and try to lower the heartrate by lowering the respiration…do not die in a hurry, Marine.  You ain’t had no roundeye yet!

Now, Nurse Magnificient pokes here head-and-arm into the shower door holding toothbrush and toothpaste.  I wanna be her slave forever.  Finally, a brush I don’t have to share with my rifle.

Whoops.  Back at Division Rear.  Captain Novak is checking me out.  “J,” he drawls, calling me by my first name the first time ever. “Wanna go make a MARS call home?  Someone told me you had been hit and we had no other word for hours, so I suspect there’s at least an WIA and an MIA telegram already in the system.”

“Yup, Captain.  thanks. The MARS on toppa the hill?  Just got one more sentence in this story to get done.”  I don’t recall who drove me up to the top of Hill 327 in the PAO jeep or what went on next other than the guy on the kill-switch kept telling me what I couldn’t tell the home folks.  Then whythefuck am I here, I wondered?  Later I found out mom had no clue what I said with with all the “blahblahblah, over” radio procedure stuff and the dude in charge interrupting me to say I couldn’t say what I just had said. What a trip.

And now I am walking back to the nurses’ station with my now-soaked towel around my shoulders, still buck-naked, now getting scared, when Nurse Be Mine Forever hands me some blue Pajamas and some kind of slippers which I waited to put on until she walks me over to a nice fresh new – gaddamn! sheets! Pillow! Whiskey Tango Foxtrot! – sheets right in front of her watchtower station.  I slip into those sheets, shuck the pj’s under the sheets and then review the day – not remembering much except for meeting the future mother of my kids, mistress of all my desires and oh my God I am so tired and now I’m really getting scared.  What are they gonna do to me here?

So I go back to the breathing exercises, getting all the way up to 25 and then 30 each breath and each exhalation and I pass blissfully from this world – and even Nurse Mine – and then…BAM!

I come to with an instantly sore forearm and squirreled right outta bed, stainding starkers and looking like I need my knife or at least a shotgun.  Someone filthy, slimy gooner crept up on me the first time I got a good deal and tried to kill me…Then the commotion started.  Someone came and secured one of my arms and before I could swing on them another gorilla grabbed my other arm and quite sensible entwined one of his legs with one of mine in a wrestling move known as a partial grapevine.  I gasped: “What The Fuck!…”

And then I noticed a new, slight girl in the same garb as Nurse Wonderful being helped up from the floor just past the bed frame opposite where I stood.  They guy in the bed had a big grin on.  Everyone else was going headless chicken.

It was still daylight so either I went around-the-clock or I had been asleep for about four hours.  One of the Air Force medics came up in front of me and said: “You OK, Marine? You’re Corporal Richards, right?”

“Right.  Will you tell your goons to let me go now? What happened?”

That’s when the guy in the bed across the brief passageway between our racks spoke up.

“You were well past here and murmuring and breathing so slow.  The corpsman came and took your your respiration count without touching you,” the man, well older than everyone, probably in his 40s, said.  I knew he was a Marine.  He called the medic Corpsman.  “He got the nurse,” they guy continued. “She watched for a bit and then had to try to take your heart rate…”

“Below 32, I bet,” in interjected.  “That’s my best at 30 breaths per minute. She touched me?” I asked, incredulously.  Didn’t anyone tell her?”

“Never had time.  You had her cold-cocked with that forearm and somehow, I couldn’t catch just what you did, had her tossed over my rack before anyone knew what was going to happen, me included.”

“Wonder I didn’t take out her throat on the way,” I said, getting angry.

That’s about the time Nurse WonerLust came stomping all pissed-off into my field of view.  She was wearing civvies but still had her stethoscope looped around her neck.  “J,” she said sharply, “I was just settling into some serious wine and someone came running up to me and saying the new Marine grunt was tearing up my ward…”

“Not a grunt,” I interrupted.  “Combat Correspondent. She touched me! I was asleep, or mostly so, doing yoga breathing because I really am scared.”

“Well, climb back…after your put the PJs back on None of us is impressed. I’ll handle this.”

The guy in the next bed started a low chortle that grew into a chuckle.  “Hey. I’m a Marine Gunner (Chief Warrant Officer-4) and he’s a combat casualty less than 24 hours minted.  No one touches one of them without peril,” he intoned in a deep baritone that strangely had me thinking, “hey, he’s right,” as I clambered back into the rack holding the pajamas in one hand in a tightly wadded ball.

Soon I was back and counting back up into the 20s when the rack shook softly.  I opened an eye and looked out from my shell.  I had my newly resurrected glasses perched on my nose this time…damn hospitals be dangerous places.  Too bad my last military pair got lost in DaNang election night running way from The White Mice after a skivvy run.  These wire-rimmed’uns bend easily but sure are damn heavy.

It was Nurse DreamSicle holding out two beers and with a skewed grin motioned me outtta the rack and to follow her down the short end of the ward – the way opposite from the shower – and out the screen door…she walked ahead of me and I felt more naked ever than the first night I got to D’Nahm with no knife or gun…my little brother’s gift Randall knife was mailed to me because I feared its theft en route until I knew where I was going.  She led the way to a picnic table, popped both beers deftly with a churchkey I hadn’t seen before.  Drew out a pack of smokes and offered me one – at night! You sure dinky dau, lady!

She laughed softly. “You sonofabitch just cost me three days off.  You broke my replacement today.  No one told her you don’t touch Marine combat evacs – and the whole 80-man ward has only five of you guys, so no one told her.”

The beer was cold.  He eyes were warm.  She produced a joint. I partook.  She talked about nothing in particular, gently teasing me back to earth.  The next half hour almost made me sane.  It was her parting gift.  The next day they began a regimen of cortico-steroids in the blown out left eardrum…but only after chow, which caused me to puke every time. So by the time I got them convinced I could be trusted to go back to Division Rear I was continuing to lose weight.  That’s with Sheila Shannahan popped back into my life.  I had left her a message at Freedom Hill’s Red Cross Center and my favorite Donut Dolly showed up the day before I got sprung to go settle my affairs at Division Rear.  Sheila brought her ebullient smile, absolutely gorgeous body and wonderful sense of humor back into my still sundered life.  She did not see me when I walked into the Red Cross Center, but one of her buddies passed on the scrawled note.  Her visit did not intrude in my budding love affair from afar with NurseWhatsHerName second love of my life, who was off on in-country R&R but would be back in time to kick my troublemaking ass off her ward.  Sheila had a giftback of 10 ready-rolls but I ate the last five before getting on that moster C-141 Starlifter Air Force big brown bird at 60,000 feet at near 600 knots to Yokohama Naval Hospital, where I met another love-of-my-life who sang to me the filthiest song I ever saw in a girl’s eyes while she played her guitar and sane “I wanna make it with out” to me right from the foot of my again-scared ass bed.

.

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