1LT Forrest Brandt's tour with the First Infantry Division
I'm a teacher and a writer in Cincinnati. The writing at this site comes from my journal and my experiences as a naive lieutenant in Vietnam (Class of 1968-69).
As jobs go, I was lucky. I spent most of my tour working as a Public Information Officer (PIO) for the First Infantry Division. My detachment did home town interviews, put together a weekly 15 minute radio show for AFVN, and ran a small pirate radio station, KLIK, from the division's base camp in Lai Khe. That meant that I went out to the field frequently for interviews and stories but I didn't have to stay. I also enjoyed a weekly trip to Saigon. The combination gave me a rare view of the war along with a "warm cot and three hots" a day. Along the way I developed a keen respect for the grunts I talked to and an awareness of the grace my job afforded me.
The hardest part of my tour involved coming home. I felt I had to sneak back onto the campus at Ohio State. For years I hid my involvement in the war from everyone I knew or met. For that reason I can say that my work has been "in process" for quite some time and still is. Major Chick wanted the first show had to be about the infantry. Willy and Wayne still had friends in the field with the 1/18th (First Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment or "First of the Eighteenth" in grunt language) so we began to plan our interviews with them.
My idea was to write a script that incorporated a narrator. His part would read as if he were a member of a platoon out on a sweep. I would match the interview bites we would collect with the narration so that the listener would go through one day and one year in the life of a grunt simultaneously. I had brought a recording of Julian Bream titled Baroque Guitar with me from stateside. It was a moody album with cuts that danced like sunlight, pieces that seemed to brood, and others in between. I thought we could use the music to help set the scenes, introduce and underscore each time change, each quote.
On Monday of the first week of December we caught the afternoon mail chopper to an NDP (night defensive position) about 6 or 7 clicks southeast of Lai Khe. As we flew, I took in the ground below. I could not help but notice the change that had taken place in the countryside as we went through October and November. The weather was moving from wet season to dry. The rains came less often and with little of the intensity I had experienced earlier. The countryside seemed to enjoy the balance. The usual red mud ooze hardened into something you could walk on, the ruts in the roadways ceased to fill with water, the plants; the rubber and palm trees and the stands of bamboo, began to turn a flat dull green. All of this was good for the day-to-day living conditions of the grunt, but it also meant that both armies would return to the attack.
We landed just outside the NDP and were escorted in through the wire. Inside the perimeter was a prairie dog city. There were mounded dugouts posted at uneven intervals, forming a rough set of concentric circles. The opening to each dugout was topped with a unique roof. The residents made them with the sun faded canvas of shelter halves and the shiny olive green vinyl of ponchos. Hard edges revealed the presence of poles or 2 X 4 beams underneath. Each roof was stitched and stretched together with ropes and draw strings and an occasional bungee cord. The roofs jutted above the ground at odd angles like the roofs of a miniature European village. Each one said much about the resident's understanding of house construction, their ingenuity, bartering skills and time in country. Most dugouts were big enough to hold three or four troops and all their gear plus a small amount of space for the "comforts of home." They had a happy sense of Boy Scout camping adventure about them but I could image each one as a festering hell hole during wet season or an attack.
There were latrines and shower points throughout the area. The later consisted of a wood contraption looking something like a guillotine, a bucket substituted for the blade. The men walked around in "Ho Chi Minh sandals" and their OD (olive drab) skivvies or their fatigue pants. Their boots and socks rested on the berm around their hooch, airing out from a week of ground pounding. Clothes lines were strung about like the lines on a clipper ship with uniforms, socks, and underwear flapping in the breeze. Their moms would have been amazed at their domestic skills. Little clumps of men gathered about the place, some washing clothes, some repairing tears with needle and thread or sewing on new rank insignia, some cleaning rifles, some smoking cigarettes and shooting the bull with each other. The bluesy voice of Otis Redding floated over the camp from a tape deck hidden next to a howitzer's emplacement, "Just sittin' on the dock o' the bay wastin' time..." A handful of artillerymen draped themselves over the sand bags of the fighting positions and basked in the sun as if tanning at a beach. The unit intellectual had strung up a hammock between two dugouts and relaxed with a paperback, nicked, scrunched, and tattered from constant travel in a field pack.
I couldn't imagine myself living like this for a week much less a complete tour. And this was base camp, the fat part of their duty. I didn't have sit all night on ambush, or out alone in a listening post. I didn't have to go out on sweeps, or hump for days through the rivers and rubber plantations. I tried not to let my surprise and innocence show. The grunts looked at me with the indifference reserved for staff officers visiting the field. The starch in my fatigues told them all they needed to know as to how hard I was working to keep them safe from Charlie or to bring democracy to the villagers. They had been given the dirty work, the short end of the stick, no doubt about it.
We walked up to groups of GIs and I felt like an encyclopedia salesman stepping onto the threshold of a suspicious farmer's house. They would cock their head to one side, sizing up the parade ground warrior before them, perhaps wondering just how anyone got lucky enough to land such a job. Some would squint with one eye as if trying to be sure they were really seeing a REMF (Rear Echelon Mother XXXXer, a derisive name given all those further from the front lines than the speaker, especially an officer who was enforcing uniform and military courtesy regulations) in the field. During the first few minutes of an interview I would squirm trying to find the right words to begin a conversation, sure that I would say something unbelievably stupid, something that would cause the conversation to end.
It never happened. The grunts had the right to be suspicious of visitors from the rear, but they also had an openness, an innate friendliness, about them. Maybe they thought I knew someone in G-4 who could see to it that, for just once, they would get their ration of beer and ice at the same time. Within a minute or two I could feel them open up and start to talk about their jobs.
"Sure it's tough out here but this is a really tight unit. I'm working with the best guys in the world."
"Yeah, there isn't a guy out here you can't trust. We all count on each other. You know he won't let you down so you don't let him down."
"I was scared the first time out. You don't know what to expect. You hear all kinds of rumors before you get here."
"You're out there and all the time you're thinking about the folks back home. If it's six or seven in the morning you're thinking, 'I guess they're just sitting down to dinner.' Or something like that."
"I'm thinking about my girl. I hope she's writing to me."
The ice broken, they moved on to more complex issues.
"You see the people here and you know they don't have much, but what they have they want to keep and the VC just won't let them. We're here to let them hold on to what little they have."
"I don't know about the rest of Vietnam but the people around here seem to really like us. They know we're here trying to help them so they can be free like us."
"You're going along and you hear the kids call you, 'Hey, Snoopy, Snoopy, over here. It's me.' It really makes you feel good when people remember your name and call out to you."
I was far more skeptical of how the Vietnamese perceived us, and just exactly what we doing for them, but I was touched by the sincerity in the voices of the grunts. Maybe in order to do their job they had to believe in the war's value. Whatever the motive, the service to our country and to Vietnam was a generous gift from these kids. It came from the heart.
Finally I asked a question I thought would help us wrap up the story. "What will you do when you get back?"
"Man, when I get home I'm gonna appreciate what I have a whole lot more."
"I'm gonna relax, take some time to unwind, maybe travel a little. I haven't seen much of America yet. I'd sure like to get to some of those places I've heard about and seen in books and magazines."
"Me? I'm gonna take things a lot more seriously. Maybe I'll go to college and get myself ready for the rest of my life."
We had enough material to do our show plus some we could turn over to the team doing "Hometowners." Wayne and Willy started to pack things up but something compelled me to approach one more soldier. He had been sitting off by himself, just close enough to figure out what we were doing and listen in on our interviews. He seemed aloof at first but something told me his true feelings had more to do with loneliness.
I walked over to him. He was staring through the wire and into the tree line some 300 meters beyond. Lost in his thoughts, he didn't hear me approach until I spoke. He agreed to the interview and we began to go through the standard laundry list of questions. "John Tanner, Sp4, Topeka, Kansas, eleven bravo..." His name, rank, home town, and MOS were rattled off with a flat voice, as if he had no energy for any emotion. I asked him how much time remained on his tour, what he had seen that was new and different. I kept having to pull the information from him, his voice kept trailing off. It was the kind of interview where you want to stop because you know you don't have the time and energy to edit out the long pauses, the disjointed phrases and the voice trailing away. I tried to abruptly end the thing once or twice, but something kept me going.
There was a sudden change in his manner. His voice caught a tiny spark of life, "If you could, would you just make sure my parents know I'm OK. Mom, Dad, don't know when I'll see you again. It's tough work but I'm all right. Tell Susan I love her. Don't forget that. Make sure she knows I love her. I'm sorry I can't seem to write, but I miss her and I'm thinking about her. Make sure she knows..."
And with that he turned back toward the tree line. I could see and hear a long breath go out of him. His shoulders slumped and his head drooped. Without looking back he gave a half hearted wave and walked away. The hiss of the tape rolling through our recorder was all that remained of our conversation.
We got back to the office and I listened to the tapes again. There had been a stiff breeze blowing as we did the interviews. The mike had picked it up and the sound of the wind made some of the voices hard to listen to. We needed a wind sock pronto if we were to make the shows sound professional. We put that on our shopping list and then selected the bites we wanted.
Later I returned to the Tanner interview again. The voice had a ghost like quality to it. I pulled Wayne over, "Listen to this guy. His voice sounds so distant." Wayne nodded. "Doesn't sound good."
I wanted something from this particular interview in the show. The counselor in me thought that maybe hearing his own voice on AFVN would perk him up, pull him out of his deep funk, but there was nothing that fit. His voice grew morbid the more we listened to it. We passed the tape on to the guys doing "hometowners" along with his name and address. Maybe they could find a home for it.
We finished putting the parts of the show together and then took the tape down to USARV IO (United States Army Vietnam Information Officer) at Long Binh and then on to AFVN, Saigon for the first show. Len Archdeacon and Mike Scott at USARV helped us find the music for our theme song: A Most Beautiful Day played by a symphonic band and charted in march style, a good compromise between martial and popular music. It made for a winning intro that wouldn't turn kids off as soon as they heard it. The guys at AFVN were great. Gary Gears, an announcer I had worked with at Ft. Lewis, put his great chops to work on our intro and closer. The AFVN crew also gave us some arguments to take back to my boss, Major Chick, should he be upset that we didn't use the march music we had packed with us on the way down from Lai Khe.
"You guys are the only ones to get it." praised Archdeacon. "The shows from the other divisions are nothing more than a body count. Yours' tells a story."
The guys at USARV and AFVN didn't have to say anything to us, much less give us credit. That made their kind words all the more delicious.
We flew back to Lai Khe ready for Major Chick and confident we had a good show. Scotty and Archdeacon were right about the music. We had no sooner started the tape than the question popped out of Major Chick's mouth, "I thought you were going to use the First Infantry Division March?"
"Sir, we recorded the show both ways, with the march and with this music . I think we want to go with this because the march would be a real turn off to the guys we want to listen to the show."
Chick nodded, his face telling me he'd hear it through and then make a decision.
The show ended. "I like what you've done here. It tells the story from the point of view of the soldiers. That's what we want, their story."
He grimaced as he looked at the next note on his pad, "The wind noise was irritating. Can you do something about it?"
"All we need is a wind sock for the mike Sir."
"OK, get one." Chick's voice then softened, "My problem with the show is that you make it sound like the soldiers don't want to be here."
"But Sir, they don't . Everyone we talked to said he'd rather be home."
"Forrest, they'll answer any question you ask. If you don't ask them if they want to be home, they won't tell you that they do."
"I know Sir, but we're trying to get the story out. The story is that the soldiers don't want to be here."
Now the father/professor side came out of Chick. His words hit, but the tone was soft. "You're not a reporter Forrest. You're a Public Information Officer. General Motors wouldn't hire you to tell people how bad Pontiacs are would they?"
"Then what makes you think the Army is going to hire you to tell people that soldiers are homesick?"
But isn't that a lie, Sir? I mean they are homesick, they do want out of here."
"How is it a lie to not ask them? Leave those questions for the press. That's their job. Our job is to tell the public what the division is doing. Our job is to get the story of the soldier out in front of the people by letting them hear what he's doing and how well he's doing it. The kids in the field deserve that."
"Does that mean we have to redo the whole show?"
"No, it's OK for a first show. There's a lot in it that I like and that I can sell to the Old Man. But start looking at your questions. You can guide the soldier in the direction you want him to go. It's not your job to dig up dirt. The press will take care of that for us."
It was a hard lesson to take. I had gone off determined to do a correspondent's job only to discover there were limits. I had to face the sudden reality that I was a hired gun, paid to use my talents to tell the story of the war from the Army's point of view. I always respected Major Chick for the way in which he handled the situation. His voice was calm and his talk was direct but respectful. It was a lesson I could take with me when I returned to teaching.
On Saturday we gathered around the radio, anxious for noon and our time slot. The opening notes of A Most Wonderful Day came on, Gears' voice boomed out and then came our story, the voices of the grunts of First of the Eighteenth. I was proud beyond belief but still fearful that General Talbot wouldn't like it. The show ended and our office mates applauded our work. I still held my breath and worried. I played a few games of solitaire, started a letter to Mary, paced the floor and grabbed a Coke from the refrigerator. An hour went by before the office phone rang. Sergeant Thomas shouted, "Lieutenant Brandt, it's Major Chick.
"Good news Forrest. The general liked the show. He signed off on the music after he heard what the other divisions were doing. You were right to go with it."
I bounded out of the office, begged a late lunch from the Mess Sergeant, ate it in a hurry and then slipped into the Officers' club for two fingers worth of Johnny Walker Black. It was time for self congratulations.
Weeks went by. January saw the end of any rain. The show got better. The three of us had jelled as a team making the work fun and interesting. If I had to be in a war, this was the best place to be.
I was sitting at my desk when Wayne tossed me a packet from the afternoon mail call. On top was a letter from the Home Town Newscenter,Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. I set it aside and tore into two letters from Mary and one from my parents. I finally opened the Leavenworth envelope and pulled out the "Hometowner Status Report", a monthly report that told me how many interviews my team had turned in, how many were accepted and sent out to stateside commercial radio stations, how many actually made it to the air waves and how many were turned down. I ran down the figures and saw that we were keeping pace with the other divisions. Then I looked at the stories that had been nixed. The name jumped off the page at me, Tanner, John, Sp/4, 11B, 1/18 INF, Topeka, Kansas. Reason: KIA, 19 Dec 68.
I grabbed the letter and stormed out of the office. I headed for a big tree 50 yards from the office. My throat was burning and my chest convulsing as I strained to hold it all in. Once behind the tree I let the tears fall, away from the prying eyes of fellow workers. John Tanner's voice was gone forever.
Good ol' Lieutenant Beauchamp (pronounced 'bee chum') Carr. An aesthete in the midst of this olive drab world where beauty entered only if you allowed it to reside in your own mind. He looked lost in uniform, his neatly cropped, sandy blonde hair belonged more to the world of lawyers than that of division staff officers. His soft green eyes peered at Lai Khe from behind caramel colored tortoise shell glasses. He belonged in a tweed jacket, a book of Yeats' poetry under his arm, heading toward the university library of his Alma Mater at Chapel Hill.
Carr was the only person I knew in all of Vietnam who faithfully listened to each broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera on AFVN, bringing his alarm clock to the office each Saturday and setting it so that he would be reminded to turn the radio on at the correct time. I ran into him in the Officers' club late one Saturday afternoon when we had both snuck out of our respective shops early. It was following what, he assured me, was a stunning performance of Tristan. He was celebrating by spending the little extra to enjoy some top shelf Scotch, Johnny Walker Black, instead of his usual two fingers of Cutty Sark. He sat, sipping neatly from his tumbler, with his long legs stretched out in front of his stool, one arm casually resting on the bar and gesturing for me to join him with the other. I pulled up a chair, ordered a scotch myself, and listened to his rave review. "You know what I really love about these broadcasts? It's Milton Cross, especially when he says 'riggoletto.' I love that perfect English voice set aside in mid sentence to trill his r's with all the gusto of an Italian scholar."
I had yet to discover such treasures in opera (I probably never will.) but I enjoyed the hell out of Beauchamp's observations; breezy, witty, professorial in tone, and always out of context with the army life.
He was an opposite to Steve Zurrow. Steve was city. Brash, bold, loud, often vulgar. He was interesting, knowledgeable, earthy, as complicated and varied as the New York that had spawned him. Beauchamp wasn't delicate or shy but he was refined and mannerly. He was thoughtful, slow to react to things, choosing to mull them over first.
I became the middle man. They could tolerate each other if I was present to bridge their differences. More often I became the listening post as each one sought me out to complain about the other.
"I cant believe him, Woody," Steve would complain in his hard vowel New York voice. "He acts like such a XXXXin' prude, like it's beneath him to even think about sex."
"He is impossibly bazaar." Beauchamp would counter. His soft southern vowels adding a musical quality to his wordiness. "He's not stupid. He must have thoughts other than those about sex and women. Forrest, how do you deal with such barbaric person?"
I would sit and listen, laughing inside, as I pictured the quality of the other that so offended the speaker. I enjoyed my role as go between. I never shared the thoughts, but held them in confidence, treasuring the humor I found in the situation.
I didn't know how others felt but I was upset at loosing Major Chick. He had worked behind the scenes to get me out of a pointless job in Long Binh.
Once I arrived at Lai Khe, Chick counseled me like a father. He warned me that one bad Officers Efficiency Report (OER) could kill an officer's career, especially one as bad as the one served up by MAJ Gonsaldo. I heard that in my usual strange way, "Career? What career? I'm in this for two years and then, see ya later." I tried not to look nonchalant or give away my indifference to the army. Major Chick earnestly continued pointing out that Gonsaldo had actually done me a favor in making my OER so extremely negative.
There are ways to punish an officer through his rating report. Going just below the norm is the way it is done. You make the case that the rated officer just doesn't quite come up to snuff. If you go too far, really try and nail the offender, the whole report tends to be viewed as a personality conflict and is therefore subject to suspicion.
Gonsaldo was over reaching. If I was as bad as he claimed I should be up for court martial instead of trying to transfer from a logistics base to an infantry division.
So Chick urged me to declaimer the report. When I told him that I didn't want to, that all I wanted was to finish this year, do a good job, go home and get out of the army forever, he didn't flip out. He simply reiterated that he thought it was best not to let such a report go unchallenged and that you never knew what you might end up doing with regard to the army.
He had been patient with me in the beginning, giving me the personnel I wanted, the equipment, the freedom to choose my topics and the opportunity to be creative, within bounds. When he liked the show, which was often, he let us know. He also gave me an excellent OER and even got the division's chief of staff to act as the reviewing officer. It didn't erase the OER from Gonsaldo but it certainly put it in a different light.
Now my benefactor was leaving to be number two at USARV to COL Franklin and we were getting LTC Patrick Joseph Vicienza. Something told me this was going to be bad news.
Vicienza arrived and spent three days being oriented by Major Chick. There was an air about him that put most of the staff on guard and caused several of us to urge Chick to reconsider and stay on.
Despite being balding, frumpy, and sallow eyed, Vicienza still managed to have a weasel's look about him. He claimed to have been a Marine during WWII but no one in the office believed him. He claimed he had been with Sergeant Lou Diamond on Guadalcanal. Most of us thought that anyone who had experienced Guadalcanal would have gotten out of the military as soon as possible and stayed out. Though he "broke starch" each morning, Vicienza's uniform seemed to clump up on him like an ugly green bag. His language was coarse even in the context of the all male, field army. The stump of a cheap cigar or a flicking cigarette seemed to always grace his mouth. He came back from each meal louder than when he left and with the sweet sour smell of bourbon on his breath.
He had a morning routine: Call all the lieutenants into conference and then order them to come up to his desk, coffee cup in hand. He would then ceremoniously open his bottom desk drawer, pull out a bottle of Old Granddad, and pour a healthy dollop into each officer's cup. The first day he pulled this several of us tried to defer. It wasn't because we were teetotalers. Far from it. Most of us drank regularly. But at 0700 hours in the morning, with a long duty day in front of you? No thank you. We soon found out that the man would not take no for an answer. You drank unless you were willing to protest on religious grounds or allow yourself to be slandered and emasculated by the resident prince. "
What? You don't want a shot of courage in your coffee? What are you, a XXXXin' WAC?" (WAC, the old Women's Army Corps.)
We usually acquiesced to avoid the hassle.
Though I tried to be cordial and military when I first met him, it was soon obvious that we were destined to be at opposite ends of any continuum. I did my best to stay out of sight and out of the office except when necessary. He reminded me of my father, full of opinions, lacking in facts, and convinced in his right to expound upon his views whenever, wherever and to whomever.
He liked the first two shows we brought him but he wanted to change the music.
"Doesn't sound military enough." He grumbled.
Well, that was the idea. Given the 60s, one sure way to get every GI in listening distance to turn the program off was to have it come on the air sounding as if the troops were about to pass in review. We had carefully selected our theme music after listening to several dozen songs. We picked a recording of It's a Most Beautiful Day played by a military band using a sort of Glenn Miller swing beat march tempo. It was a good compromise and there was a segment early in the music that would be easy to "pot down" and do a voice over. We had sold the music to Major Chick and General Talbot, who had wanted us to use The First Infantry Division March. Both had listened to our arguments and to our standard opening and agreed with our choices. Now Vicienza "knew better." It was one of those areas where his military mind and my civilian mind were bound to conflict. Vicienza wanted something that sounded genuinely, uncompromisingly military. I wanted something that sold to the listening audience, an audience made up mostly of draftees who couldn't wait to return to the civilian world. Vicienza couldn't understand why I wouldn't simply look at his colonel's leaf and acquiesce. I couldn't understand why he wouldn't trust such a decision to someone who knew radio.
I was impressed with myself. I was there, in the PIO office, because I knew something about radio wasn't I? I wanted to be left alone to demonstrate my craft.
I shared the dilemma with Willy and Wayne and together we came up with a solution. We took our standard opening and The First Infantry Division March music to USARV and had Len Archdeacon, Scotty (Mike Scott) and others, all commercial radio and TV people in civilian life, listen to it. They agreed with us, as we knew they would, that the march was a real turn off. We made up a new opening using the march and then they presented both to COL Franklin. They sold Franklin on our position without telling him who, or what was behind the rejected music.
We went down to AFVN the next day and recorded the new show using our music. Thursday we flew back to Lai Khe and presented the show to Vicienza. I made the tragic mistake of catching up with him at the officers club just after dinner. I knew from his first slurred words of greeting that he had been deep into conversation with Johnny Walker Red. He wanted to go back to the tent and hear the new show ASAP. I asked him if I could go back to the office first and get the tape set up. That got me out of having to walk back with him but it gave him time to order and down another double, probably a net loss. Anyway, he sat and listened to the whole tape finding spots here or there to criticize, mostly done to ensure our awareness that he was boss. The show finished and he allowed as how it was pretty good.
"But what the XXXX happened to the God damn music? I thought we agreed that the God damn music was going to be XXXXing changed."
I foolishly decided to play rank on him.
"Sir, we played both intros for COL Franklin at USARV and he decided to stick with the old one."
I could see the red shoot up Vicienza's neck.
"Since when is God damn COL Franklin in your XXXXing chain-of-command Lieutenant? Who calls the XXXXing shots around here, division, or a bunch of sorry ass bureaucrats at XXXXing USARV?"
Vicienza had me there. I had violated the chain-of-commend. I had deliberately gone over his head because I wanted my way. I could have redone the show with the First Infantry Division March and waited for COL Franklin to kill the music. It was his radio station and he could have requested the change through channels. Archdeacon and Scotty would have gladly suggested the switch without revealing my part in the plot. COL Franklin almost always listened to them so it probably would have worked. But I was too impatient, too civilian. Now I was confronted with the consequences of my own actions. I was going to get a good ass chewing and even in my prejudiced heart I knew I deserved it.
Still, I was determined to fight on out of the principal of the thing. His music choice sucked. Mine was the better choice. It was my job (and my education) to know the difference. So I began to grasp at straws.
"Sir, it's his radio station." I added. Another bad idea.
"God dammit Lieutenant! You think I don't know whose XXXXing station it is? Maybe you ought to find out whose XXXXing office this is! I want that XXXXing music changed and I don't give a shit if you have to kiss some ass to get it done. Do you XXXXing read me?"
"Sir,", (God, I hated that deference to rank. You couldn't really argue or fight with someone over ideas if one side was always "Sir, this. Sir, that."), "The show is already in bed. I can't change it from here. Besides we cleared this music with General Talbot when we first did the show. You're changing the theme song."
I didn't say, "You're changing the theme song on my show." But, that was what I was thinking and feeling and that was the reason I was fighting so hard over the issue. However, if I thought I'd yanked Vicienza's chain when I mentioned COL Franklin, it was nothing compared to dropping his boss's name.
"Jesus XXXXing Christ Lieutenant! Who the XXXX do you think is the PIO around here? It sure as hell isn't some XXXXing R-O-T-C lieutenant. You let me take care of General Talbot and just do your own God damn job. You go sticking your dick in places it doesn't XXXXing belong and I'll have your God damn ass so far up on Nui Bah Din you'll need binoculars to see the base. Now get on the XXXXing horn and get that God damn music changed."
"Sir, can't be done now. I can't get to Saigon, I can't get studio time on that short of notice."
Vicienza was pissed but he also knew he was had. He couldn't get a chopper seat for me until the next morning, if then. He could probably go back channel and get the show pulled but that would only piss off the general. He could use his rank to get me studio time and then order me to ride in to Saigon on the morning convoy but that would cost him his jeep for two days and I probably would not get there in time to make the change anyway.
His threat to ship me off to Nui Bah Din was not just the ranting of an angry power freak. He could get me transferred if he wanted to. Maybe not to the top of the mountain, but I'd be sent off to some remote part of the base camp and finish out my tour playing endless games of solitaire and taking inventories. I knew that from the experiences of Lt. Jim "Phu Bai is all right" Swenson. However, Swenson's exile had also let me in on a secret I was sure Vicienza wasn't aware of: no one, not even General Abrams, had the authority to ship you off to some life threatening post as a punishment.
Vicienza, lit another cigarette. It bounced up and down between his puffy lips as he spoke his final words.
"You are one sorry ass excuse for a Lieutenant. You managed to pull this off this week but if that XXXXing music isn't changed next week you can kiss your ass and any XXXXing dreams you have about R&R goodbye because I promise you I won't put up with any XXXXing insubordination from a God damn Lieutenant." With that he pulled on his cap, stormed out of the tent and headed for the Officers' club and another round or two of Johnnie Walker.
Word of my face down with Vicienza passed rapidly through the office. Once it was safe Wayne and Willy came in to offer condolences. Others in the office followed suit. Master Sergeant Thomas and Lieutenant Moyer put a more realistic point of truth to the situation.
Moyer was direct, "Man, Forrest, if I was you I'd be careful. That son of a bitch will have your ass."
Master Sergeant Thomas, always careful and correct about rank, waited until later. He caught me outside the tent, alone, and pulled me aside. His fatherly tone and soft warm voice caught my ear.
"Sir, would you take some advice from an old sergeant who's been around a bit?"
"Sure Sarge, shoot."
"Don't fight this thing. If he wants that damn music, give it to him. It ain't worth the fight. I've seen officers like him before. He can make your life miserable. He can make you wish you were transferred." "I know Sarge, but it's not the right music and it really screws up the show." "What do you care? Hell Lieutenant, you finish this tour, you're outta here and outta the army. You're just puttin' in time. Better to do it here in base camp than sittin' on top of ol' Nhui Ba Dinh. You don't need that kind of grief sir."
Good old Master Sergeant Thomas was dead on the money about my goals. I wasn't a career soldier. But, I wasn't a slacker either. I tried to pull my weight and do a good job. The show reflected that. When I went on officer of the guard I was straight. I took it seriously and I did it by the book. But the rest of it...the rest of it, the saluting and "sir"-ing, the knowing how the chain of command operated, what was straight and what was not, what was fraternization, what was militarily correct versus artistically correct... that was pure misery to me. I hated it. I resented it. I was not about to buy into it. That's why I was breaking the chain on Vicienza. That's why I wasn't saluting captains or worrying about whose station and whose show this was. But I also realized that Master Sergeant Thomas was dead on about Vicienza's potential for trouble. Most of the other senior officers didn't have time or energy to screw with me. Vicienza did. Where Chick and Franklin were content to let me do what I did best and leave me alone to do it, Vicienza was not. What I couldn't bring myself to acknowledge was that Vicienza had the right to do things his way. It was his office.
"Listen to old' Sergeant Thomas sir. You know, right now you might just as well be a black man like me. That's the kind of power you have in this fight. You keep pissing Vicienza off and he's gonna figure out how to nail your young ass but good. You XXXX with the man too often and you could be seeing things through the bars at LBJ (Long Binh Jail). Young Lieutenant like you, in the slammer with all those guys doing bad time...unh,unh, figure it out for yourself sir. Now listen to me. Do the show his way. Keep your nose clean. Get out of here in one piece and get your ass back home as a civilian. You can't win this one."
"Thanks Sarge. I know you're right. I need to let go of it but it just pisses me off." "Let go of it Sir, it isn't gonna do you any good and it might just do you a hell of a lot of bad."
"I will Sarge, I will." I said and then we went our separate ways.
Master Sergeant Thomas, protector of young lieutenants. Everything he said was straight from his experience and his heart. He knew how to handle the army, how to handle racial prejudice, how to handle dangerous people like Lieutenant Colonel Vicienza. I needed to follow his advice and quickly.
KLIK - The "Big Red One"
(c) By Forrest Brandt, 1Lt, (1968-1989)
January 26, 1998
Radio Lai Khe -- South Vietnam, 1967
"Serving the Big Red One"