Leaving Da Nang
It was one of those moments when sound collapses into an eerie silence and time somehow ceases to move and deposits you into an altered, yet clear reality. I had been plucked from the moment and set down in the space between time. But I was not alone. I turned my head and our eyes met as if guided by some mysterious contrivance of fate. In a bustling, chaotic crowd of many, only he stood out; a slight smile on his lips.
I had recently returned to Chu Lai from an assignment at the NSAH (Naval Support Activity Hospital) in Da Nang. Our unit was working an AO in the area and the battalion commander wanted a casualty reporter nearby. It was a quiet three weeks and an opportunity for me to use it as an in-country R & R; one that I badly needed. It may have been why I was sent to Da Nang. Activity was constant down south, and I clearly was showing the signs of sensory overload.
I was back in familiar territory and working the ER, GR, and wards when I received a call from Percy that Captain Rice (not his real name) wanted me to accompany him to visit wounded at the hospital in Da Nang. He arrived mid-day in his jeep, and we made the 60 mile trip north. Captain Rice drove and I held his Thompson in my lap. My M-16 was in storage in the 2nd Surg. armory.
The trip was uneventful as we raced passed villages and sandbagged outposts. Farmers bent over in their fields and young children standing on the roadside with outstretched hand, babies on their hips, greeted us along the way. A column of thick black smoke rose in the distance on my left as we neared Da Nang. I kept my eyes fixed in that direction until I was satisfied there was nothing of consequence in progress. Captain Rice sped on, his eyes fixed on the road.
Once we arrived, Captain Rice told me to meet him at the hospital in two hours. I made my way to the hospital barracks to find Walt and others I had met while in Da Nang. I found Walt and we sat and BS’d until the two hours had passed. I said my goodbyes and made my way back to the hospital only to find that Captain Rice planned on visiting for another two hours and was not ready to go. It was nearly 1400 hours (2:00 p.m.). Curfew was four hours away at 1800.
Walt was surprised to see me stroll back into the barracks. When I told him that we weren’t going to leave for another two hours or so, he suggested I should tell the captain that I refuse to leave, spend the night, and leave in the morning. It sounded like a good plan to me; I did not want to be on the road so close to curfew. Two lightly armed American soldiers would present an easy target.
The time passed and I walked back to the hospital only to find that Captain Rice was not where we had planned to meet. Nervously glancing at my watch, I sat and waited for him to show. It was after 4:30 when he strolled into the reception area, Thompson in hand, and signaled for me to follow him. He jumped into the drivers seat, handed his weapon to me, started the jeep, and we began our return journey south to Chu Lai.
The Thompson rested, barrel out, across my lap; my left hand resting on the trigger guard as we made our way out of Da Nang. The village on the outskirts of town was busy with U.S and ARVN military traffic and locals on foot making their way in from the fields. Curfew was a little over an hour away and they did not want to get caught in the open. After 1800 hours, anyone beyond the last guard post would be considered an enemy combatant in a free fire zone and subject to be killed.
We crawled to a stop as we approached a narrow one lane bridge filled with lumbering vehicles, horns honking, and nervous villagers rushing back from the fields, dōn gánh (bamboo carrying bar with woven baskets hanging on each end) filled with produce, swaying on their shoulders. The sooner they were in from the fields the better off they were. It was not uncommon for a late straggler to be gunned down before 1800 hours.
I watched these villagers closely as they raced across the bridge, snarling angrily and shouting at the passing vehicles forcing them to walk an even narrower path against the steel girders of the bridge; their loads bumped and spilling on the road. I was growing nervous as it became obvious we would not beat the curfew before reaching Chu Lai. I asked Captain Rice if he thought it best to return and stay at the hospital for the night. He shook his head and frustrated, laid on the horn. I continued my watch.
It was in that moment, stopped at the foot of the bridge amidst all the noise and erratic commotion, when the forward flow of time ceased. I was on high alert and being drawn to something. I scanned the blurred faces of the villagers as they raced past me, my eyes searching for what beckoned me. Nothing. I looked past the parade of humanity and into a crowd standing at the entrance of a market and saw only him standing there; his arms folded across his chest.
He was wearing a black shirt, purple shorts and Ho Chi Minh sandals; dark black hair sat atop his weathered face; old for a young man. Our eyes locked. Safety off, my finger moved imperceptibly towards the trigger. He slowly moved his left arm away from his body to reveal a pistol in his right hand, tucked under his armpit. With a feint, non-threatening smile on his lips, he nodded lightly. Eyes still locked, I returned his nod. The jeep lurched forward suddenly and caused me to lose eye contact. Time had restarted and we were moving. I quickly turned to look back toward the market. He was gone.
Something unexplainable happened at the foot of that bridge that day. I did not feel threatened or frightened. We both had somehow found ourselves in the same space and time apart from the chaos that whirled around us and acknowledged that it was not the place or time for death.
Captain Rice sped across the bridge; a basket hit our windshield and a shrill litany of Vietnamese curses followed us as we passed the last guard post and headed for the open road and Chu Lai.
Nothing was said as we sped down the road at full speed in a race to get somewhere-anywhere-before curfew and darkness set in. Nothing was visible. Animals, people, birds…nothing. It was as if 1800 hours had become such a way of life that all living things made themselves scarce and dared not be seen in the open. I thought about what Walt had said and wished I had stayed behind. I was not comfortable, and I could see by the tension on his face, neither was Captain Rice.
Coming out of a turn we heard a pop and the jeep began to shimmy and swerve. We had blown a rear tire and we had no spare. Never slowing, Captain Rice said “Fuck it” and we continued to race down the road. Even if we did have a spare, stopping to change a tire in the middle of nowhere after curfew was not a good idea.
Conversation now began to flow between the captain and me. He kept repeating “Fuck!” over and over, “We need to find a place to stop…soon. Keep an eye out for a friendly place. Fuck!”
“No shit, sir.”
As dusk cleared daylight for dark we spotted a Marine outpost and pulled up to the gate. The sentries exited their sandbagged guardhouse and approached us. They were surprised to see two G.I’s cruising the road after curfew. Captain Rice explained our situation and pointed to the now shredded remains of a tire and battered rim. Letting us in and directing us to the command post I could see the laughter in their looks…“Army…figures”
Captain Rice stopped the vehicle and entered the command bunker. I waited in the jeep feeling a hell of a lot better about my circumstances, no matter what the sentries thought. Captain Rice exited the bunker minutes later with a Marine captain who was taking us to a location where we could grab some C’s and sleep for the night.
Leaving the jeep behind for their mechanics to repair, we followed our Marine savior to our sanctuary for the night. As we walked away, I heard the two sentries talking in low voices and giggling. They might have been laughing about something else, but I was sure we had to be object of their delight.
After chatting a while with a couple of Marine grunts, I settled down on a borrowed sleeping bag and drifted off to sleep. Morning came; our jeep was delivered with a replaced rim and tire, and we set off to finish our journey. Captain Rice let me off at 2nd Surg. and went on his way. Two weeks later a couple of friends, battalion medics, stopped by to visit. In our conversations I told them of the journey from Da Nang. They laughed and let me know that Captain Rice had been reprimanded by the battalion CO for placing me in danger. Hell, the government did that.