29 March 2010

SCENES ON THE REGIMENTAL STREET: Mud, Mirth, and A Vision Of Grace

By now, the Autumn rains had really set in and An Hoa was a sea of mud. For those of us who used the Vietnamese laundry on base, we noticed that our “clean” clothing came back with the unique odor that came from being dried over a water buffalo dung fire.

Knee-high rubber boots, just like my Dad and Granddad had worn in the feed lot on the farm, were the footwear of choice. The mud was often so deep that it nearly topped the boots.

The shower point continued to operate, opening from 1900 to 2000 each night. To keep our clothing clean and dry, it was not uncommon to see Marines walking to the shower point clad only in rubber boots, flak jacket, and helmet, carrying a towel in one hand and a rifle in the other.

And it was cold. Now, that means that the temperatures had plummeted into the low 70s, but that was a 20 to 30 degree drop. One Marine in the Comm Platoon wrote home to tell his Mom that he was cold. She immediately sent him a ski jacket. He wore it everywhere.

The problem was that it was an electric, almost fluorescent, blue. Now, An Hoa and its environs was done in shades of green, reddish brown and grey. That electric blue jacket was visible for miles! You could always tell where that Marine was because there was a big empty circle around him. If he wanted to be a target, no one wanted to be close.

* * * * *

The Regimental Sergeant Major hated the “bush cover,” an item that tended to replace the standard utility cover. The utility cover had been Marine Corps issue since at least WWII. It was cut very similarly to a railroad engineer’s cap. The bush cover, on the other hand, was a floppy hat that had a 360° degree brim. It could be turned up on the sides like a cowboy hat, pushed up in front like a cavalryman’s hat, worn with the front brim down and the rear brim up, like a fedora, or with the brim pulled down all around. And the Sergeant Major hated it.

There was a regimental policy that forbade wearing the bush cover in An Hoa, and when the Sergeant Major found someone wearing one, he had his revenge. Outside the CP bunker, he had erected a scarlet and gold board labeled “Sergeant Major’s Funny Hat Board.” The miscreant would be marched to the board, handed a hammer and nail, and ordered to nail his bush cover to the board.

The policy was not popular, and troops quickly learned to duck out of the Sergeant Major’s sight.

One evening, I was walking back from chow with another lieutenant. From our left and about 20 meters in front of us, a Marine turned onto the regimental street from the road to the LZ. He was obviously just in from the bush. He was muddy, wore a large ruck sack, carried his helmet in his free hand, and wore his bush cover in the “cavalryman” style. He was clearly tired, walking with his head down, green towel wrapped around his neck.

Suddenly, from our right and about 10 meters behind the Marine, the Sergeant Major entered the street. He made a beeline for the Marines. Getting right up behind the man, the Sergeant Major snatched the bush cover from the Marine’s head.

“Who the hell do you think you are, Marine.”

The Marine turned. On the pocket of his flak jacket, he wore the silver leaf of a lieutenant colonel. (We did not wear collar insignia of rank in the bush—it made for an inviting target. In “garrison areas” the practice was to wear one piece of insignia on the flak jacket pocket.)

“Uh, Sergeant Major. I think I’m Lieutenant Colonel ________. Seventh Marines. May I have my cover back, please?”

The Sergeant Major turned as scarlet as his funny hat board. Muttering apologies, he returned the cover, and directed the Colonel to the Regimental S-3 shop, as requested.

Then, turning and seeing the two of us, grinning, he said, “Not one word, Lieutenants, not one [universal modifier] word.”

We didn’t have to say anything. The troops who had witnessed this little morality play had had the sense to duck for cover. The story was all over the base in minutes.

* * * * *

The life we lived was primitive and much like that lived by our ancestors in a frontier town. One day was much like the next. Anything new or out of the ordinary was interesting.

One afternoon, I was walking across the regimental street to the S-4 shop when a mechanical mule sputtered by. Also on the street was a war dog handler and his dog, a German Shepherd. The dog was on a lead, but when the mule drove by, he almost pulled his handler off his feet. Barking, snarling, dancing around, the dog was lunging for the mule.

“Stop that goddam mule,” the handler shouted. The driver stopped.

The handler reached down and loosed his dog. Fido raced to the idling mule, snarling and slobbering. He latched onto the rail of the vehicle and began to shake it.

The handler waited a minute or two and then ambled over. Folding the canvas lead into a short bunch, he smacked the dog between the ears. The dog quieted and sat.

“All right stupid,” the handler said. “You caught it. Now what are you gonna do with it?”

The dog just looked at him. “OK, man. Thanks, you can go.” The mule driver put it back into gear and chugged off. The dog just sat there.

Over the ensuing 40 years, there have been times when I have been tempted. Then, through God's unfathomable grace, I have felt the "stupid smack" that Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs and we fathers of a certain age know so well and His voice saying "OK, Stupid. If you caught it, what would you do with it?”

I sometimes think that that is just another way of saying “Lead us not into temptation.”

© 2010 Michael R. McCarty. All rights reserved.

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