Lizards ...
of Lai Khe

by: Forrest Brandt
© 1998

Lai Khe Base Camp, 1st ID, December 1968 - The first week in December I drew officer of the guard for the first time in Lai Khe. My sergeant of the guard, had been around before and was diplomatically bringing me up to speed. He taught me how to operate the switchboard, made suggestions for the log and then accompanied me on the first visit to each outpost. Night was closing down around us. A brief late afternoon shower had cooled things off and left a brilliant diamond net of rain drops on the tops of the sand bags, gun barrels, and the razor wire that dazzled in the bright setting sun. The beauty was a pleasant diversion to the sense of fear and responsibility that was rising in me.
      In Paris, light years from my duty post, diplomats were trying to arrange a cease fire for the Christmas holiday with the stated goal of having it extend on into Tet and possibly on for the foreseeable future. That didn't help me tonight. We had been hit with mortars and rockets several times in the past two weeks and there had been signs that sappers had been testing the base camp's defenses. I was nervous as I checked each position, trying to establish where each one was and figure out an unobserved approach so that I could come and go without giving away the outpost or giving a sniper a clean shoot at me. The troops were friendly and patient with the text book questions from the FNG lieutenant.
      "Got your fields of fire staked out?"
      "Yes sir. We got our stakes out ... there ... and there. Williams checked the wire and cleaned out the trash and brush. You can see where we link with that OP."
      "Great. See you guys later. Be careful, we know Charlie's watching."
      "Yes sir."
      We made the rounds and then returned to our post, a little room next to the old French laundry. You entered from the north wall to find a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling that gave the room a soft yellow cast. On your immediate left was a Metal army folding cot pushed into the corner, made up in basic training camp style with four inches of white sheet folded back onto the top of the olive drab wool blanket and a fat white pillow resting square in the middle of the sheet. Just beyond the foot of the bed stood a desk holding the switchboard and a standard telephone. Thumb tacked to the wall above and around the switchboard were celluloid covered copies of the SOP, the number for the Duty Officer, standing orders for the guard, the meaning of each color on a flare for that night, a list of phone numbers for the MP's, fire station, officer's club ... everything but pizza delivery
... a field desk sat in the opposite corner, a goose neck lamp bent over to light the pages of the log book. A couple of chairs sat about, placed where ever the last person to use it had decided to sit.
      The office was cozy in an odd sort of way. The walls were cream stucco, cool to the touch and stained where monsoon rains managed to squeeze their way between the red roof tiles and the exterior wall and then drooled down the interior wall. The smell of mildew mixed with rifle cleaning fluid, grease and oil to give the place a scent like that of hunter's cabin.
      Sarge stepped outside to catch the end of the day and a smoke so I joined him, by now the night was gobbling up the sky, leaving only a small patch of golden light just above the tops of the jungle trees, 5 kliks out. Behind us we could hear the soft pops as the evening's first illumination rounds were fired off by some unseen mortar crew. We did the usual get acquainted talk and established a duty sharing schedule so that both of us did not have to stay awake all night long.
      Things moved slowly; a call from the Duty Officer, checking to make sure everything was manned on the interior guard, a call from the office checking to see where I had left a document that Sgt Thomas needed, then nothing. Sarge had made the first tour of the guard positions around 20 hundred. I waited until 10 minutes after 21-hundred to go so that we would not establish a time when the guards could expect us. I was moving from the first to the second bunker, trying hard to keep out of sight and walk quietly when my boot found a four inch deep puddle left by the late afternoon shower. I was angry at myself for such a stupid mistake thinking that if this had been the time Charlie was looking for me I would have just given him an extra advantage. I walked on, the wet sock and the squeaky boot reminding me of my combat novice status each step of the way. "If we were in the field you'd be dead now." I taunted myself.
      I stayed a little longer at each outpost this time around, trying to find out a bit more about the troops who made up my temporary command and to try and let them see that I was sharing this task with them. I came back and spent the next two hours writing a letter to Mary and another one to John Colmary, my old boss back at the Ohio State Intramural Sports Office.
      At 2215 it was my turn again. This time I avoided the puddles and began to sense that I was getting a handle on this guard stuff. Again I took time to talk to each guard and to ask how things were going, by now I had figured out that only two out of 25 men on duty that night had fewer days in country than me, in fact most of them were half way back to the world having spent a good portion of their tour out in the bush before lucking into a rear echelon job. It was a sobering thought to realize how lucky I had been to start at Long Binh and now be safe inside the perimeter at Lai Khe.
      The night dragged on. Only one of us was required to be awake and as we switched back and forth I discovered that Sarge had learned how to grab snatches of sleep and wake up refreshed. It was frustrating to watch. I tried to sleep for a few minutes with little success. I read until I got sleepy, then found I was still too awake to sleep. At 0300 I departed for my fourth round of out posts. I stopped at the fifth OP, a bunker that jutted out into the stubble of the cleaned out jungle, and talked to the two black kids manning the twin 40 "duster" mount. The bunker had been dug out deep and wide enough to allow the hull to be covered, leaving only the turret sticking above. Sandbags and an earth berm protected the crew from the sides and still left enough room for the guns to sweep 180 degrees across the perimeter. There were layers of concertina wire laid out in front of the guns, well beyond the range of hand grenades. I tried to imagine coming at the position, seeing those 40 mm shells whistling out in a flat trajectory and then exploding on contact with anything or as a low air burst, anti-aircraft firepower turned loose on infantry. Not a pretty sight.
      I moved on to the next outpost. I came up from a different angle than the one I had used previously, deliberately changing my route to each position on each round. I heard no challenge and started to congratulate myself on my stealth until I realized that that meant that none of the bad guys would have been challenged either. Here was a hole in the defensive perimeter! I was within two steps of the bunker when I finally heard a frightened whisper. "Halt!" I did and then he brought me forward following the correct procedure, but his other three buddies were sacked out.
      I felt my anger rising, I shook each of them awake and then gave the whole bunker a royal ass chewing, all done in an emphatic, low, tight lipped, whisper. I didn't want to make much noise and I didn't want to get carried away and spend more time during which they would be listening to me and not for Charley. I wanted them to know I was angry but I wanted them back to work worse. Finished, and still feeling the heat of anger run down my back, I turned and began to climb out of the bunker.
      Phouck you!" followed me out of the bunker.
      I turned instantly---heat really up. "Who said that?" I demanded.
      "Sir, honest, no one!" I was staring into four earnest faces, all of them with pleading eyes. "Honest sir." Answered the one sentry who had challenged me.
      "Don't hand me that crap. I heard it. You can be pissed that I chewed you out but you're not sleeping on my guard mount and I'm not taking that kind of talk from anybody. Now who said it?"
      "Sir," the spokesmen continued, "Please, it's the lizards Sir. They make that sound."
      I saw the others desperately nodding in agreement. "It's true Sir." Came an affirming voice. "It's the lizards around here. We call them F--- you lizards."
      I was still steaming and this cock and bull story was not placating my anger. "I haven't got time for that kind of nonsense. Now I want to know who said it or we take this whole thing up with Captain Gray in the morning. Gray was the no nonsense HHC company commander. He had been a platoon leader with the First Cav on a previous tour and I knew his name would strike the fear of God into these miscreants.
      "Please, Sir," a third voice entered the fray. "Just listen for awhile, you'll hear them again." His words were no more than out than, "Phouck you!" I relaxed and now the lizard decided to end the argument for good. "Phouck you!" rolled out of some unknown tree at triple fortissimo. There was indeed a "F--- you lizard."
      I was trying to keep from laughing. I stifled it into a series of snorts and gasps. Then I pulled myself together an put on my stern game face again. "All right, so it wasn't you guys. But I'm coming back out here at Zero five and every swinging Richard had better be up and alert. Is that understood?"
      A relieved and collective, "Yes sir," came from each mouth.
      I exited the bunker with as much dignity as I could and finished my rounds. Now that I had been tuned in I heard the cry everywhere: "Phouck you!", "Phouck You!", "Phouck you!"
      I returned to the laundry, stretched out on the cot and began plotting some way to teach the damn lizard how to add "Sir" to the end of his mating call. If he was going to say it he at least owed me that deference to rank! Right?


. . . you!


Report a Broken Link / Photo (tell me where!), or eMail a Comment
© War-Stories.com 1995-2023. All Rights Reserved.