Gunning for Ho, Vietnam stories

As the tailgate of the C-130 dropped, hot air funneled in and brought with it dust and a stomach-turning stench. Every face in the plane reacted. A trooper gagged. The one next to him told him to breathe through his mouth. This was Vietnam, Rowe figured, and whatever waited outside was home for however long they were here, a fact he resigned himself to.

The load master motioned for them to deplane. They hefted their gear and headed toward the rear with a sense of resolve. The big turbo props screamed as the plane readied for a quick turnaround back to Tan Son Nhut.

Rowe stared at the fallow surrounding the strip. Shielding his eyes, he gripped his duffel bag and hurried through the prop blast. The others followed. A bored-looking staff sergeant with skin like redwood bark met them at the edge of the strip and formed them into a line. An piece went off, a 155 he figured. Then the plane lunged down the runway and launched itself into the cobalt sky.

"Welcome to goddamn Cu Chi," the sergeant said. "Grab your gear and follow."

The guy beside Rowe asked where the hell they really were. Rowe shrugged. Again the artillery piece went off. They fell into step, bound for a city of tents and Quonset huts appearing much like an olive-drab ghetto constructed by a sail maker.

"What’s that smell, sarge?" the man behind Rowe asked.

"What smell?"

"Smells like shit," the replacement said.

"You’ll get used to it." As they marched, the sergeant meted out congenial in-country wisdom. The village was VC, he warned, "Men, women, boys, girls, goddamn pigs, goddamn goats, and even goddamn dogs. You can get anything there, dope, pussy, French cigarettes, a goddamn black market stereo, and things you don’t want, tuberculosis, clap and goddamn dead."

The 155mm sent another round beyond the perimeter.

Cu Chi, the sergeant explained, had been fertilized for centuries by human shit, which accounted in part for the odor -- but just in part. Headquarters sat in the middle of a lowland plain near Highway 1 atop a catacomb of tunnels dug by guerrillas. "Goddamn vulnerable to sapper attacks."

He said a new tunnel occasionally would be located and engineers would blow the opening and declare it harmless. "Once it’s harmless, it’s harmless no matter how many sappers crawl outta it," he said. A single artillery round punctuated every ninth or tenth sentence as if timed to emphasize his point. "If you’re pullin’ guard near a hole that’s harmless and you see a fuckin’ slope crawl out with twenty pounds’a C-4 and a goddamn detonator, it’s a goddamn illusion. The whole country’s a goddamn illusion. If you’re bleedin’ to death, it’s a goddamn illusion."

The guy behind Rowe whistled under his breath. The 155 went off. The blast went through the soles of Rowe’s feet.

They halted at a Quonset hut with a sign reading "Repo Depot" where the sergeant turned them over to three spec fours who casually thumbed through files. When Rowe’s name was called, the interviewer motioned him onto a fold-out chair. The clerk’s name tag read Hoffman. An unlit cigarette dangled from his lips as he spread Rowe’s file and looked at the test scores.

He studied them. "Hobbes, can you type?"

"No."

"How’d you end up in the infantry?"

"Lucky, I guess."

"You’re going to find this hard to believe, Hobbes," he said, "but I’m like God, life and death right here." He held up a ballpoint pen.

"I don’t find anything hard to believe," Rowe said.

Hoffman lit his cigarette and exhaled. "Rifleman," he said and looked away. "Okay." He ran his finger over a list on a clipboard. "After charm school, you’ll be going to the Wolfhounds. You’re lucky."

"How’s that?" Rowe asked.

"You’ll get to meet new and interesting people on a regular basis -- if you live long enough." He stamped a series of forms, initialed them and casually closed the folder. "They’ve got the highest casualty rate in ‘Nam."