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All Along The Watchtower
1969
© Copyright (1998) by, Forrest Brandt
 

Lai Khe Base Camp, early January 1969, the Officers Club: Lieutenant Gannon pulled his lean frame over the bar stool and ordered, "A tall Bud." Koh Hiep returned quickly and placed the can in front of the brown haired officer. Jon Smith, my buddy from Miami University (Oxford, Ohio), waved to him from our end of the bar and motioned for Gannon to sidle over and join us. I was introduced and then Smith got a twisted grin on his face, "Hank, tell Forrest about tower duty."

Gannon took a healthy gulp from his can motioned to Koh Hiep for another round, ran his long fingers through his short hair, took a deep breath and then looked straight at me.

"You ever pull tower duty?"

"You mean as guard duty?"

"Yeah."

"No. We've got a sector from the laundry down to the old French fort. I've never had to pull guard anywhere else."

"Well it's the last week in December and our section has a lot of married guys off in Hawaii screwin' their brains out and I get told I'm gonna pull tower duty." He pulls a smoke from his Marlboro pack, places it carefully between his thin lips and automatically produces his Zippo from the bar's counter top. The rasp of the flint leads to a broad orange flame as he talks and lights the bouncing cigarette at the same time.

"So I climb up and Captain Gray walks me through the set up. I've got a field phone, a prick 25 (PRC - 25, a standard army radio set) and a hot-line to the OD (Officer of the Day, always a field grade at the division's forward headquarters.)" He puffs and aims a luxuriant cloud of white smoke toward the stack of bottles and the mirror behind the bar. "You guys get a set of instructions telling you what all the pyrotechnics mean?" he asks.

He was referring to a list we received when we took command of the perimeter guard. It went through flare colors, usually red, green and white. These would be used by guards and out posts in front of the perimeter to let us know what was going on should other communications not work. White might mean, "I got contact in front of me." Green, "Position over run." Red, "Start praying." They were supposed to change meaning regularly but I suspected that the changes were driven more by real action on the part of Charlie than out of respect for the SOP.

"Yeah, white means this, green means that..." I answered.

"You got it. Well I get handed this sheet and Gray explains how important it is and then adds that I need to fix the sector where the flare is fired, send a warning order to the chief of smoke (The fire direction center for the base's artillery support) and call the OD pronto."

Gannon took a short puff, snorted and then a slow pull on the Bud. His face turned towards me again. "He really stressed that part about 'call the OD' as in, don't you be the guy accountable for what happens if the crap breaks loose. I took him very craping serious."

He looked away again, "So, I'm up there and I'm gettin' off lookin' around the base camp, seein' everything from the top. I'm noticing where everything is, lookin at the people walkin around, like a kid in a tree house and I'm thinking, 'Hey, this beats a sharp stick in the eye!' Then I get over the first look and start looking out at the perimeter. You remember we had some rain and fog off and on back in December?"

I nod.

"Well, we had patches of fog lying around about 20 - 30 meters beyond the wire. Just enough to look interesting but sort of spooky too." Anyway, I'm up there with an NCO. We're taking turns, shooting the crap, sharing smokes, trying to kill the time. We run our commo checks. We log everything in. Time is just dragging and by now there's nothing new about the tower's view. The sergeant pulls a poncho over his head, gets out his flashlight, sits on the floor and tries to write a letter to his girl back in The World. I'm looking out at the wire but I'm seeing the beach at Sydney, imagining a few blonde Aussie lassies grooving on me, when POP! Up goes a red flare. I stare at it in disbelief. I start to reach for the chart to find out what the hell red means when Pop! Pop! Pop! I got red, I got green, I got white. I reach out to shake the sergeant and get his ass in gear when I see long arcs of red tracer go all over the place. Pop! Pop! Pop! I got more colors than I have on the charts, I got small arms chatter on all sides, all 360 degrees! I got ribbons of red dots going into the air. Thump! Thump! Thump! I got illumination rounds from some mortar team. I'm thinking, holy crap! This is Tet all over again and my ass is in the barrel. I grab the hot line and I get this sore assed major, I'm screaming into the mouth piece, "Sir you need to get up here now! The whole perimeter's goin up! I got flares and illumination rounds going everywhere, there's small arms fires, too many to count!"

He takes another pull on the Bud and looks away from us for a second, then returns, his voice angry, "So I hear this tone in his voice. You know, that 'Why-are-you-telling-me-this?' tone; like he's really impatient.

"Lieutenant Gannon," I hear this bored voice say like my name means idiot or something, "Take a look at the log. What day is this?" I look at the log book. "December 31st Sir."

"Right. Now look at your watch and tell me the time."

I look. It's zero, zero, two. Two damn minutes into 1969. I didn't even answer the son of a bitch I just put the phone down and watched the rest of the show. A-hole of a sergeant just sat there smirking when he wasn't snorting or giggling out loud."

Smith and I were in stitches but I could still see the red in Gannon's face and neck. I waved to Koh Hiep and bought the "Savior of Lai Khe" another Bud.

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