Fighting our own humanity in Viet Nam
A man in his late thirties and his female friend are sitting in a cafe in San Francisco having dinner. The young lady is a bit perplexed and because of this she initiates the following conversation.
[quoteright]"Why do you hate rice?"
"What makes you think
I hate it?"
"Everyone doesn't like some kind of food, but you see rice and your whole personality changes... Even when it's on my plate."
"I never realized it was that obvious."
"It is. I've watched you and whenever there is rice on the table you get a look on your face like you just ate a puppy and didn't really enjoy it."
"That bad, huh?"
"Yes. So why do you hate rice?"
"Not going to let me off the hook are you?"
"No. Not this time."
"OK, but I suspect you will regret having asked."
***I was in the Navy for eleven years after I quit high school. Long enough to be considered a "lifer" by the first-termers but not long enough to get a pension. I went in in early 1968, probably the nastiest year of the Vietnam War. I only spent two weeks in 'Nam that year, but that was long enough to lose something a lot more important to me than my virginity. I want to say innocence but that's not really the word. I guess the best illustration is that I found out just how easy it is to kill another human being when you are certain it is him or you. I fear I am digressing. You wanted to know about my feelings about rice, not war.
After about two years in the Navy I found myself leaving the life of a midshipman at the Naval Academy under a small cloud. They didn't kick me out; I left under my own steam, but they were happy to see me go. As a parting shot I received a set of orders to staff Com 7th Fleet Detachment Saigon (that's in vietnam in case you weren't sure) and for icing on this wonderful cake they added a six-week stop at a Florida Air Force base for jungle survival school. This is not how I had planned to spend my summer vacation, but with my small amount of 'Nam experience it seemed like a good idea. I thought it might even help keep me alive some day.
I reported to the school in the euphoria commonly associated with complete ignorance of what was about to befall me. First they told us we were to spend two weeks learning how to survive, then two weeks practicing survival, and two weeks in a mock prison camp hoping we would survive. I worried a lot about that prison camp part as I didn't think then, nor for that matter do I think now, that I would make a very good prisoner. Next they taught us how to catch, butcher, cook, eat and hide the remains of common garden-variety chickens. These were skills I had pretty much mastered during summers spent at my grandmother's farm in Arkansas, so I wasn't terribly impressed. I did question the availability of white leghorns in South Vietnam. This was a mistake I only made once. About half way through the first two weeks of training I got a glimmer of hope about the prison camp. We were told that if we eluded capture for the two weeks of survival practice and managed to make it to the pickup point on time and undetected we would have proven our survival skills and would therefore not be subjected to the indignities of the prison camp.
My naturally suspicious nature caused me to draw several conclusions from this rather attractive-looking offer:
So I win, right?
I suspect you may have already guessed that this was not the case. I was severely chastised for having eluded them for three days longer than anyone else. They explained to me how worried they were about my health and well-being with several hard blows to my abdomen. When I expressed my doubts about their sincerity in standard sailor language it was decided that what I really needed was a double-length tour of the prison camp.
There was but one object in my universe that helped me keep my mind off of food or the lack of it. It was a person (I use the term very loosely here) called Chang. Chang was not his real name; in fact he was not even vaguely Oriental. He had blond hair, a ruddy complexion and a thin red mustache, but they called him Chang and his function in life was to cause me pain. At this he was an expert as well as an aficionado. The man truly loved his work.
Note: the school was run as a joint service command, and the instructors wore fake uniforms that were supposed to look North Vietnamese. So not only was I unaware of Chang's rank I couldn't even tell what service he was in. This makes it harder later for you to find them so you can kill them.
For four weeks Chang delighted in beating me senseless. I refused to answer his questions; in return he put bruises in places where I had not known I had places. The only pleasure (short lived though it was) that I remember during those weeks came about at an interrogation to which I had been invited. In fact I was the guest of honor. Chang, fun guy that he was, had had my arms tied behind my back to a six-foot-long two-inch-thick pole. On each end of the pole a guard was stationed to keep me in whatever position Chang decreed I should be in. For a while Chang had the guards hold me up off the floor with the pole while I screamed in pain (at that time I was considerably lighter than I am now). After a while he had them drop me — assuming, I guess, that I would collapse in a heap on the floor. I had hoped that was what he would think. That was not what happened. I landed on my feet and spun around in a manner that caught one guard in the stomach with the end of the pole, one in the arm, and Chang in the side of the face, leaving a scratch that had not healed when I left two weeks later. The reaction to this action on my part was for Chang to deliver a kick calculated to drive my testicles and adjacent anatomy halfway to my shoulder blades. It was a matter of days before I was certain he had been unsuccessful.
Note: now I suppose you are thinking, as no doubt would any rational human being, how could something like this happen in the last half of the twentieth century in the most "enlightened" country in the world? The answer is simpler than you might think. I signed a waiver of liability and a statement that nothing happening as a part of the survival training would be considered an actionable item by me or my heirs. That last part about heirs should have been a tipoff, but I was a lot younger then and still under the assumption that I would live forever.
Except for a week in a 4'x4'x4' metal box, the rest of my time at the prison camp was uneventful.
Throughout the entire adventure in the camp all I ate was plain white rice, with only the occasional crawly thing wallowing through it to break the monotony. I actually began to look forward to the animal life in my rice, as it was the only form of protein it looked like I would see for a period of time just short of eternity.
At this time I feel I should make two points:
After the end of the school they gave us thirty days of "basket leave" (meaning it didn't count against the thirty days a year we normally got), which I used to recuperate and to plan ways of finding Chang and killing him in some diabolical manner. We were told when we left the place that this reaction was common but that we were not to do anything about it as these men were only doing their job and it was for our own good anyway. It is hard to argue when they use the logic of Hitler and your mother on you; at the same time, however it did not change my feelings for Chang.
I went off to Viet Nam like a good little sailor and about a year and several interesting adventures later, none of which required any knowledge of chicken slaughter or prison camp etiquette, I found myself working as a desk sergeant at Armed Forces Police headquarters in Saigon. This was an interesting job in that Armed Forces Police is a little like a non-denominational church, i.e. "We don't care what you were, we are all equal here." This was an unusual premise for a military organization to work under, but I liked it because it enabled me, a mere E-5, to run a thirty-man shift of police officers — not because I knew somebody but because I was good at the job. In this capacity I found myself on the desk one mid-shift about 1:00 AM in late 1971. This was the night that two of my troops brought in an Air Force Master Sergeant named Millwright for "drunk and disorderly" and resisting arrest. Normal procedure would be to throw him in the big holding cell with several other drunks until he had sobered up. This one, however, I threw in the dirtiest cell we had. After a couple of hours I went back to talk to him.
I unlocked the cell and stepped in, locking the door behind me. He was sitting on the floor in the corner on a pile of paper, as there was nothing else in the cell to rest on. Before me sat a middle aged man with thinning blond hair, a ruddy complexion, and a thin red mustache with a lot of gray in it. I wasn't sure if he was asleep or awake so I spoke one word that caused him to leap to his feet with a look of stark terror on his face.
All I said was "Chang."
His reaction almost caught me off guard. He lunged at me. Only his state of inebriation and my recent experience as a cop enabled me to sidestep the attack. He banged into the bars hard enough to set himself back down on the floor with a bleeding lip.
Then I gave him the speech:
"You are Master Sergeant Roland Millwright, United States Air Force. You are stationed at Clark Air Force Base in The Philippines and are on temporary assignment in Saigon. I know your wife's name and address in The States, your kids' names and what your girl friend at Clark looks like in the raw. A man like you shouldn't carry so much junk in his pockets when he goes out to get drunk. Did you know that you are in my cell in my jail in my city and if you rammed your head into the wall tonight and died on the spot there would only be the most casual of investigations... Well don't worry, I'm not going to hurt you, at least not now, but I want you to know that I've found you and to find you again won't be nearly so difficult as this was... Oh, by the way, I get out of the service in a few months and I will be coming to see you, and then I will kill you, as well as any of your family I find with you. Goodnight Roland."
I went off duty the next morning at 6:00 AM and the next shift cut him loose with the rest of the drunks about 9:00 AM. He went straight to the desk sergeant and demanded a list of the people on duty last night. The desk sergeant told him to go straight to hell and if he had a complaint to write a report on it and put it through channels. He left then and apparently went straight back to Clark. In a couple of weeks we received a request for that night's duty roster through channels from Clark Air Force Base. I sent it right out. I had been standing in for a friend that night and my name was not on the list.
It was actually eight years before I got out of the navy and a couple of years after that before I tried to track him down. I found him quite by accident in 1982. I was visiting my father in Modesto and as was my habit I looked in the phone book for names I knew to be associated with Roland. His sister (her name was also in his wallet) was listed in Stockton. When I called the number, "Chang" answered.
All I said was "I've found you again Chang."
I understand he was in the VA hospital mental ward for two months after that. I found out from a neighbor of the sister, whom he still lives with when he isn't in the ward, that his ex-wife and kids won't have anything to do with him anymore. He spends most of his retirement check on drugs or booze, and there is probably not a person on the planet who would call him friend.
I sent him a postcard from the town where his ex-wife lives in Florida in 1984, but he slit his wrists and almost died so I decided not to do that any more.
I still keep pretty close tabs on him now so that when he dies I can go to the funeral. I guess I am the only person in the world who really cares about him any more.
***"Now, are there any more of my idiosyncrasies you would like to know about?"
Recycled Rambo DAVID CRAMER is currently Assistant Local Secretary of San Francisco Regional Mensa. We love him both for his contribution this month and for the fact that he sent it to us by computer modem.
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