Hush puppies, hookers and hammocks
By Tom Skiens
I bought a pare of size 8 1/2 hush puppies at the retail shop on the ground floor of the Singapore Ambassador hotel. The hush puppies were the “in thing” on my 21st birthday, June 21st 1968. I also bought a Hammock, a 4X4 orange tarp and a hooker of Indian nationality. In order to make my 21st birthday complete I visited three Indian snake charmers with a cobra in a jar and a bag of weed in their hand. I stayed away from the snake but I took possession of the weed.
As the day moved on I traded in my Indian nationality hooker for a younger model. The mommasan pimp didn’t mind. Her standard advertisement was, “you like boom boom number one cherry girl, she love you long time”.
The Ambassador hotel was filled to overflowing with G.I’s fresh out of Vietnam and all of them were looking for the same thing. Showers, flush toilets, clean sheets, music, booze, women and a telephone call back to the world. The kind of a call where after you finish speaking you must say “over” and then after your mom on the other end of the line finishes talking she must say, “over”. This makes for a difficult conversation but talking to my mom on my 21st birthday from Singapore, priceless.
The hotel was making a mint off the American servicemen on their one week escape from Vietnam. It made no difference if the G.I. job was in the rear with the gear, humping the bush, hurling 60 tons of steel down highway one, a cannon cocker, a rotor head or a rubber tired mine magnet, the goal was the same. Get laid before you get laid and get drunk while you are doing it. Everybody at the hotel got rich and the G.I had the best R&R story he could ever have dreamed of. I did not make friends with the other G.I’s at the hotel. I would say Hi in passing and that was about it. I felt like all my friends were dead and so was I. The most conversation I had was with college students who played music at the bar. The students were in the middle of a revolution, declaring Singapore a Free city state and breaking away from China. I found out years later that they were successful.
I told my hooker friend a story about my life. It goes like this. I wave goodbye to my mother and thank her for washing my Basketball uniform as I open the door of the “47” Ford I bought for $50.00 with money I had earned thinning trees with a chainsaw the summer before. “If I didn’t wash your uniform, who would”, she says. I smile and say, ” Sorry mom, I will give you more warning next time but they just told us about the pictures this morning. I have to go, the Varsity photos are scheduled in less than 10 minutes. By, love you”
I back out of the driveway being careful not to scrape the white picket fence. I drive 1/2 of a mile north on Egan street and take a left on W. Tyler street. It is five blocks from here to Hwy. 395 and then less than a 200 yards to the high school. I travel four blocks and begin to slow down for the approaching intersection. All of a sudden the front of my car explodes, my windshield is shattered but still intact. What the hell has happened? My car glides to a stop. I try to open the drivers door but it is jammed. What the hell has happened?
I slam into the door as hard as I can with my left shoulder, the door begins to move with the metal on metal scraping of steel bent against steel sound. I hit the door again and it opens enough to allow me to exit. My windshield is broken with a thousand lines going off in as many different directions. What the hell has happened? I turn around and see a Honda motor bike lying twisted and broken on the road to my east. I walk four steps toward the rear of my car. I see the legs of a person on the pavement. I take two more steps. I hear a girl screaming and I see her boyfriend, the senior class president and honor student lying on the ground. Randy will lay there forever. The ambulance will come and take him to the hospital. Randy will die a week later, His family will grieve and the ramifications for the other lives involved will begin to mature.
My mother will tell me as she dies of cancer how she crossed the street for more than 20 years to avoid coming face to face with Randy’s mother. On one occasion, Mrs. Russell followed my mother across the street and cornered her in an isle of a store. She begged my mother to quit avoiding her and said that she held no blame for anyone in our family concerning her son’s death. My mother and I both cried together.
I am tasked to ask the question,” why him and not me”? I will go to war to search for the meaning of life. I will come to know death in the war but I will struggle to have a relationship with life.
I ask my hooker friend what she thought about my story and she said,” I no understand English so good. You want boom boom now”. I was glad she neither spoke nor understood English. I needed to tell someone about Randy who would not attempt to absolve or blame. She was the perfect listener. I gave her all my money when I left town.
The return flight from Singapore to Vietnam is filled with a ghost like silence. Everyone partied hardy the last night of the R&R. Leaving no drink standing, no hooker unrewarded, no laugh repressed, no lie untold, we did our job well.
I have made love, not to the one I love. I have slept with, showered with, not the one I love. I return to a place where I know I will die. It is just a matter of time. It is more certain than the notion of living. I can visualize my death but I cannot visualize my life.
The Asian heat of Singapore is similar to that of Vietnam. It sucks the air from my lungs, sticking to my body like Elmer’s glue. The heat and memories of a weeks worth of sex, a hangover, a meal plus the steady rhythm of the jet engine lead me to a dream filled sleep.
In my dream it is April 19, 1968. I am the fourth person back in the left column. The other column is less than 10 yards to my right. We should not be this bunched up. God knows we have hit enough booby traps to learn. I see and hear an explosion to my right front less than 15 yards away. I drop to the ground but before my stomach touches I am on my way back up.
I know what this is. It is the same thing as January 13, 1968. A Bouncing Betty leaves us with two dead and eight wounded. Zimmerman and I are the next two unwounded in the column and we must walk the line. (See: “Betty“.) Today is not much different.
I move to the right column, drop my rucksack and get the PRC 25 radio from my radio telephone operator. 0900, grid square BS 533853, Company C request dust off for two KHA, two WHA result bouncing Betty. I move into the zone making sure the path is clear for the medics. A fucking new guy walking point in the left column has hot steel in his stomach.
The F.N.G. came in on the resupply chopper the night before and has been with the company less than 14 hours. The company put him in first Platoon and first Platoon put him on the point in the left column. First day in the bush and the F.N.G. gets hot steel in his stomach which may result in him going home. The guy at my feet, dead. The next guy, dead. The next guy, Platoon leader, LT. his right foot is blown off and his right hand doesn’t look good, he will probably lose it. He is moaning from shock and pain. His weapon has been thrown to the right, it is destroyed, useless.
I yell at the F.N.G. to stop running around because he may set off another mine. Sgt. Don fox and Zimmerman talk the F.N.G. to safety. In three days Zimmerman and I will be on our bellies crawling over to Sgt. Fox who will have a bullet in his belly that pentrated through his weapon befor entering his body. Higher/higher said it was Auitomatic weapons fire but I was standing next to him and only remember 1 round. Two days after the Sgt. Fox dust off Zimmerman will be involved in another Bouncing Betty and I will on the radio calling in another dustoff. Charlie 1/1 is getting beat up.
A medic asks me to help put one of the dead on a poncho so we can drag him to the approaching chopper.
I rifle through the guys rucksack to get a poncho while the medic rolls him onto his back. I find pieces of bone and blood on the inside of the grunts rucksack. For the first time I look at the dead guys face. It is my friend John John.
I am stunned, shocked. This is the day, the hour, the minute and the grid coordinates where the American dream dies for me. Dark clouds invade my mind, a deep numbing pain penetrates my soul. The medic wants me to lift the right side of the body. John John is pulverized flesh from head to toe, like the Gook on the receiving end of a B-52 package. Concussion and shrapnel have transformed his body to the consistency of firm Jelly. I can’t find anything solid enough to lift.
A year passes, then two, finally I see the middle finger of his right hand, I test it to see if it will stay attached to his body as I lift. I grab a hand full of bloody pants leg with my right hand and lift the lower part of his body off the ground. I pray that pieces of his body do not come off in my hands as I lift my dark broken friend high enough to set him on the poncho.
April 19, 1968, 0900 hours, grid BS533853, I died, the dream ends, no preparation, I be zombie. I died because it was the easiest and fastest way to deal with my problem. I could not move forward while packing the weight of the dead and I could not leave them behind. I must sacrifice a part of my soul so my body can move on. I don’t have time to morn, only to tuck the memory of the mangled bodies into the corners of my mind and keep on humping.
The corners of my mind will meld over time
The visions of the dead come more often
I’ve recorded their names and absolved them of chains
While I’m busy constructing my own coffin
A zombie gets off the return flight from the Singapore R&R in Chu Lai July 3rd 1968 and finds his company waiting on the tarmac for a C-130 to take them north. He goes to the orderly room and puts together his gear including: Rucksack, weapon, ammo, C’s, smoke grenades, steel pot, Poncho, Pancho liner, Jungle knife, 4 canteens, smokes, matches, Bug juice, TP and lots of shoe strings because they are the only thing in this Army that you can get plenty of and they always work.
I use shoe strings to tie around my legs, above my calves so that they will keep the leeches lower. Shoe strings to tie the souls of my boots on when they come apart in the jungle. Shoe strings to tie my poncho to stakes and pegs to make a hooch for the night. Shoe strings to tie the PRC 25 mike close to my ear so only I can hear. Shoe strings to tie my socks to the outside of a rucksack so they can air out. Shoe strings for splints and slings. The strings that keep the grunts alive exist only because the black market finds no profit in them.
I packed my Hush Puppies, the Hammock and the orange 4X4 tarp. The C-130 takes us north about 45 minutes and lands at a well developed fire base. These guys have the works, tanks, APC’s, bunkers with 5 sandbag roofs, NCO club, showers plus heavy artillery like the 175 MM and the 155 MM Howitzer.
We would spend some days here and then choppers would take us to a place not so developed. The Zombie doesn’t know he is dead but he knows how to act like he wants to die. He wears the 4X4 orange tarp on the outside of his rucksack. Sticking up above his head is the antenna from the PRC. 25 radio he carries. He sometimes walks point adorned in this fashion. The orange tarp and antenna a tempting piece of sniper bate.
I had planned to use The Hush Puppy shoes I bought in Singapore when we dug in for a couple of days near a water source. I hoped to get out of my boots for a couple of hours, go down to the water hole in my Hush Puppies, steel pot, M-16 and nothing on but the armed forces radio network. I never did find that waterhole.
At the first opportunity I dug out the Hammock and tied it between two trees. I quickly realized that if we were to get hit the hammock would be the worst possible place to be. I chucked the hammock and went back to sleeping on the ground where all grunts belong, near a foxhole, curled around a rock with the edge of my steel pot as a pillow.
I used the Orange 4×4 tarp as ground cover for a time. I think it wore out. If I packed it on the outside of my Rucksack much it would not have lasted long. The jungle would surround, choke and destroy it like it did everything else. I think the jungle ate my Hush Puppies.
A final word on the Hooker. I didn’t even know her name. When I left Singapore I did not promise to write her and she did not promise to write me. We both kept our word. If either of us had tried to write I am certain a letter addressed to ” Hooker ” or “GI from Oregon ” would have a difficult time finding the RIGHT “Hooker” or “GI from Oregon.” I for one have never received such a letter.