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WillyHappy Holidays!
Definitely the worst of times.
1968

(© 1998) by Forrest Brandt

 

Wet season was trying to hang on. As the end of November 1968 approached, the skies darkened, the daily temperature dropped and the country seemed to be much more hospitable. The first night in December brought a steady rain. It beat down on the tops of the tents in a drone of drum taps. Ruts in the oiled streets of the base camp turned into puddles that shimmered and danced in paisley and rainbow patterns as they reflected the lights of the jeeps and three quarter ton trucks that splashed and churned around the complex.

I came back to the office after dinner, retrieved my swivel chair from Sgt Jay Smith's desk, and spent some time catching up on letters home and trying to get a handle on the General's Christmas letter to his staff. Major Chick, whose office was in the adjacent tent, had asked me to put something together and I was stuck in a groove. The only idea I could come up with that caused ideas to flow was to use the Dicken's line, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." I twisted it around in a dozen different ways and each time Chick would call me over to his tent and tell me it wasn't working. I thought I had a pretty fair idea of what he wanted but I was wrong. He was becoming exasperated, I was becoming frustrated and the project was nearing deadline.

Definitely the worst of times.

Charlie Gibbon, our pet monkey, had been granted refuge from the rain by someone. It was a mistake to let him inside. He would inevitably get into trouble. He pulled and tugged or chewed anything within his grasp. That meant everything in the tent for Gibbon could climb anywhere. Charlie began his visit to the forbidden city by climbing up into the tent's rafters and gorging himself on all the goodies he could find in the numerous spider web treats that seemed to fill each junction in the roof. This included a few of the webs' resident owners. He would soon get sick and puke the the tidbits down onto some unfortunate's desk. That person would no longer find Gibbon's presence amusing and would banish him back to his home in our bunker. I was content to watch and be amused by his antics, his happy chirping sounds, and find humor in the antics of his unintentional human victims. Since he was nowhere near my desk, his upset stomach was not my concern.

I diddled with the general's letter for awhile and then set it aside in complete frustration. The problem was that I could not, would not, let go of my values and see and say things in the language of a career officer. I wanted to be home. Christmas time made that wish all the more poignant. The "lifers" were here willingly doing their career work. It wasn't that they didn't miss home but they really wanted to be here doing their duty. I couldn't understand that.

I tried to get the right tone once more but my heart just wasn't in it. My mood began to turn from frustration to something dark and brooding, something as black as the evening sky that surrounded me. I wrote a long letter to an old girl friend, Jan Kihlken, back in Ohio. She was teaching fourth graders and had asked me to write to them. I filled a page or two with idle chit chat regarding the Buckeye's forthcoming Rose Bowl game mixed in with an ample portion of loneliness and self pity. Halfway through I stopped and thought for awhile. What would her students like to know? What did I think they should know about the war? I decided that it was time for 9 year olds to know my truth about war.

I suppressed the cynic inside me who wanted to say something on the order of, "Learn the truth now before you go off to college, join ROTC, and end up being a PIO officer in Bum-duck, Egypt or Lai Khe, Vietnam!" But I left no doubt as to my unhappiness.

About this time Gibbon "Ralphed" all over PFC Clark's drafting table (heh-heh), and Clark, never the most stable member of our jolly crew, threw a memorable temper tantrum.

Maybe what I had was contagious?

Clark and Specialist Huckaby had to clean up the mess (heh-heh). They put Gibbon back on his chain, and deposited him back on top of the bunker in the pouring rain (heh-heh-heh). Gibbon tested his tether in the hope that he might be able to reach back into the tent, howled when he could not, and finally resigned himself to the fate of a drowned-rat and dejectedly crawled into the total darkness of the bunker, by that time Clark and Huckaby were gone, either watching TV in the other tent or putting down a few beers at the enlisted men's club.

That left me alone in the tent, with no one's follie to laugh at, and free to indulge myself in my own brand of misery as I continued my letter to Jan. I wrote about some of the horrible scenes I had witnessed since arriving. I threw in a set of 8 X 10, black and white glossys, photos taken by Jay Smith and SP/4 Dominc Sondy, from the battle at fire support base Julie. They weren't the worst ones I could have picked, but they didn't leave much to the imagination as to the ferocity of that battle.

It was a chickey thing to do. I knew Jan could not read the letter to her kids or use the photos in her classroom---it wasn't even fit for her to see. She was hoping for a cheerful letter from a college friend telling the kids something about a strange and distant land and free of the adult cares and worries I was so anxious to unload. She was hoping for photos of smiling GIs and happy Vietnamese kids, maybe a truck and a jeep or two, and perhaps a single, staged, photo of a platoon just starting out on patrol: starched fatigues, polished boots and smiles on their faces.

PIO bull ... safe for public consumption. No blood or body parts. Wholesome entertainment for the whole family. And all brought to you by the fine folks in "Your United States Army."

I had chosen to be perverse. I realized what I was doing. I was allowing my misery to take over. I was trying to punish Jan and her class for my being stuck in Vietnam. I was fast becoming an angry, bitter person. I saw no glory here. I saw no reason for our being here---my being here.

I wanted out.

I wanted home.

I wanted this over.

I sealed the envelope, addressed it, and then set it aside to mail the next morning. Then I pulled my poncho over my fatigues, pushed the swivel chair under my desk, turned out the lights, and stepped into the pouring gloom, heading toward the O club. A double scotch or two would either break me out of this mood or turn it into a really fine funk.

I "got lucky" that yearly came back in the next morning, picked the envelope up and mailed it but it never got there. A few weeks later I heard from Jan again and sent her something much more tame. I have no idea what happened. It certainly wasn't what I deserved to have happen, and yeah I was being "cold and heartless." I think I've grown up since then. It's a hard story. It was difficult to write because I could see as I retold the story "where my head was" that year. But I think it sets the tone for the eventual epiphany I have on Christmas night.

 

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