Edited by Wiley "Tiny" Dodd
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TALL TALE #21, “NO, PLEASE DAMN IT, JUST KEEP YOUR STEAK”
By Dick Arnold
As previously mentioned, after the fight on April 5, 1968, I just hung around LZ Mile High for the remainder of my tour. It varied from unit to unit, but usually they would try to get a guy back to the rear within 7-10 days of his DEROS date. (DEROS—Date Estimated for Return from Overseas) Ah, that magical DEROS date, around which nearly all thoughts revolved and nearly anything else paled in comparison. Now, I was overjoyed to be leaving after one year but John Paul Vann was right—“We did not have ten years experience, we had one years experience ten times.” A big difference!
As a guy wound on down toward the end of his tour, he was considered “short”, did not have much time left. Now in most units it was considered bad luck and bad form to actually start the countdown much before 30 days. Also you did not actually count the day you were to leave. For instance, 15 days left would be expressed as “14 and a wake-up.” In addition, you were expected to be creative at expressing how short you were.
“So Arnold , just how short are you?”
“I’m too short for long conversations.” or,
“I’m so short I can sleep in a match box and use a cleaning patch to cover-up with!”
It wasn’t unusual for the military to send you home a few days short of a year and that is what happened with me. I had come in-country on May 14, 1967 and was scheduled to leave on May 11, 1968.
Sometime around May 5th or 6th, I was told I would be going back on that afternoon’s resupply chopper. Needless to say, the kid was happy! Started divvying-up the stuff in my rucksack. The plastic wrap I had used for my pictures and writing materials was much sought after, as were the extra cans of foot powder I had. Then started going around saying the ritualistic good-byes and some of them were a bit tinged with a pang of sorrow. You know, a few of us were still around from the big fights in October and November of 1967; we had been through a great deal together and it was hard to leave them. Took the usual good-natured ribbing:
“Hey Arnold, save some beer for us!” or,
“Arnold, don’t OD. on them round-eyed women now!”
I promised to write, which I never did, as was true with most guys. (We will touch on this aspect in another Tale) Our C/O, Captain Beal, called me to the top of the hill and the following exchange took place:
“Arnold, I heard you guys were in some big fights back in October and November?”
“Yes sir, that’s right.”
“Well this seems like a different outfit now.” (Referring to the poor performance by several of the new guys on April 5th. What he didn’t know, and I wasn’t about to tell him now, was that several of us experienced guys were not exactly enamored of his performance either!)
“Well sir, we had lots of experienced guys then, it is a little different now.”
“O.K. Go on home, you have done your share.” (Now, that made me feel good!)
Finally I walked on down to the LZ to await the chopper. In the aftermath of the April 5 debacle, we had finally gotten a bona fide Platoon Sergeant—Sgt. Cook an older, Black careerist. He walked down with me, then shook my hand and said, “Good luck, I’ve enjoyed working with you.” At the time I thought—how strange! (That is the same kind of stuff we say to someone leaving the department here at Lilly’s) It wasn’t until much later in life that I realized what he really meant. For he was a man talking to a guy that had grown-up a lot—but was still a kid. Like a father, he knew that one day I would look back at my experience through different eyes. I only knew him for about three weeks; but I have never forgotten what a nice gesture that was.
The magic moment came, I boarded the chopper and off we went. It was traditional in our unit, and some others, to throw a smoke grenade as you were leaving. I had a red one and tossed it out from couple of hundred feet up. My last view of the boonies was looking down on the red dirt and tangled vegetation of the firebase as the sun set behind the Laotian mountains; I can still remember that scene to this day, and probably forever.
Rode the chopper to Dak To where I caught another one to Pleiku. Turned in my rifle there, gathered-up my duffel bag that had been in storage, and after spending the night, caught a plane to Cam Ranh Bay—the same place I had came in at.
Cam Ranh Bay is one of the finest natural harbors in the world and the U.S. had built a massive facility there. As large as a medium-sized U.S. town, it was one of those facilities where you had a difficult time remembering you were in a war zone. Bowling alleys, tennis and basketball courts, and indoor theaters abounded. We had even chosen the place for in-country dairy.
It was very secure, but at night you could still hear the occasional artillery fire and see flares related to activity outside the perimeter. My first night there, I laid awake for a very long time—disconcerted at hearing gunfire, even very distant gunfire, and not having a weapon nearby. For as paranoid grunts—even at our most secure firebases—we did not go ANYWHERE without a weapon. That included the latrine, the mess hall, and the shower. An acquired taste so to speak, and one not easily broken.
Both in-coming and out-going soldiers were housed near each other, so we got a chance to check-out the new guys. The contrasts between the two groups of guys about the same ages were astounding. Many of us were skinny, maybe even gaunt, and well-tanned. Most of the them were pale and still had touches of baby fat on their bodies. However, the greatest difference was in our demeanors. We, of course, were the old salts; self-assured and even cocky. While they were the new kids on the block—all eyes and ears, extremely jumpy, and willing to believe just about anything they were told. Of course just twelve months earlier, I had been one of the new guys, so I was moderate in my hazing:
“Don’t worry, we’ve left some of the bad guys for you.” Or
“You have 360 days left in-country? Wow, I don’t ever remember having that many, why, these Vietnamese will be driving Cadillacs by the time you get home!”
Some of the eleven-bravo guys (11B was the Military Occupational Specialty designation for infantry—the grunts) would sidle up to you and ask what it was really like. Now, you can not possibly adequately answer that question, so I did not even try—just saying something like, “Oh, it is an experience all right.” Of course I also knew that 6-10 out of every 100 of those 11B’s were not going to survive their tour, but I did not mention that either.
Finally, the day came when I was to get on my “freedom bird.” As could be expected, the mood on the plane was very light and expectant. When we actually achieved liftoff and Vietnam got smaller and smaller out of the windows—a universal heart-felt cheer went up. A decided contrast I recall from the plane I came in-country on—when that plane touched-down you could have heard a pin drop!
Ever disdainful of the REMF’s, and haughty to the end, us 11 Bravo guys tended to sit all together on the plane. Of course it was easy to spot us. We wore the blue braid of the Infantry on our right shoulders and our chests were full of the medals that really counted, or at least in our eyes: the Combat Infantryman Badges, the Purple Hearts, the various medals for valor, and the unit citations awarded for something greater than getting the Morning Reports out on time.
I noticed that the stewardesses were experienced enough to recognize the real warriors, as they spent an inordinate share of their time among us. In retrospect, it was either because they knew who had the most interesting war stories, or more likely, they knew who needed the most mothering. At any rate, it was sure nice to smell a woman’s perfume again!
During the long flight, I made acquaintances with a few of the REMF’s and for the first time caught an inkling of how unique my experience as a grunt had been. For them, their year tours had merely been an inconvenience; while for us it had been something entirely different.
I recall the flight being about 21 hours, plenty of time for reflection, and so you add things up. You lost a friend to the war, and you gained a new one. You compromised one principle and fulfilled another. You learned, as old men tell it front of the courthouse, that war is not all bad; it may not make a man of you, but it teaches you that manhood is not something to scoff at. Further, some stories of valor are true; dead bodies are heavy and it’s best not to touch them; fear is paralysis but to remain paralyzed is almost certainly to die; life is sweet; and finally, there are very few true heroes or cowards—most of us fall somewhere in between and even that placement varies tremendously from day to day.
We landed at an air-force base outside of Seattle, part of which the Army had co-opted as a processing point for the guys coming home from ‘Nam. I noticed a large sign over the main building, “Welcome Home, Returnees.” “Returnees?”, “Returnees?”, only the Army would use a word like that.
Went through the typical endless paper work and what passed for a customs check performed by military personnel. It was interesting, for scuttlebutt back in ‘Nam insisted that everyone would suffer through a thorough check of all baggage—best not try smuggling-in any illicit drugs, firearms, whatever. That just wasn’t so; everyone I saw just had a cursory check done.
So finally we are all done, signed the papers, converted our MPC to real greenbacks, and wanted to head on home. (MPC—Military Payment Certificates. That was what was used for money in Vietnam by American soldiers. Considerably smaller than normal currency, each denomination was a different color and very closely resembled Monopoly money!)
However, there was one final hurdle bound-up in the Army’s repeatedly dreadful sense of timing. For at this point a career-type strides to the front of the room and very earnestly says, “ If anybody is willing to stick around for a couple of hours, The United States Army would like to show its appreciation of a job well done by serving you a complete steak dinner—at no charge to you of course.” Now, I guess it was a nice gesture and perhaps would have been better received by officers or senior NCO’s. But nearly everyone in that room were draftees; we had been looking forward to this moment for a year, and to us two hours seemed like an eternity. I do not believe there was a single taker and the poor guy was nearly trampled in our haste to get the hell out of there and to the airport!
Six of us caught a taxi and headed for the Tacoma airport. Riding along I could not help but to observe the people passing by engrossed in the details of their lives and for the first time I realized, and it hit me like a ton of bricks, that very few fellow countrymen had shared the intensity of my experience. It was not like WWII where, even if you had no one in service, you still felt the pain of the war effort. Sugar was rationed, gasoline was rationed, new cars or even tires were near impossible to get. But our war was different—unless you had a loved one over there it was simply an abstraction to most folks. Not inferring anything negative, for such is human nature, just making an observation.
A very interesting thing happened when we arrived at the airport. In our haste to get home, and because most services had been provided for us for a year, all six of us started to walk away without paying the cabbie! Can you believe that? A psychiatrist would have a field day expounding on it!
If memory serves, I flew home on Delta. To get to Indy you had to fly through Chicago and I went-up to the counter to check on a ticket. They had a flight leaving within the hour but it was full; however the lady said they usually had some cancellations and no-shows and for me to sign the Standby roster. Geez I thought, is Standby anyway to treat a returning hero? (not a returning conquering hero, just the run-of-mill type) But such is life, so I signed the roster and set down. As seats became available, the Standby roster was consulted and names called based on the order you signed. Five names were called and I was certain I was next one and I was right for the lady called “Richard Arnold please.” Can you believe there were two of us approached the counter? He was returning from ‘Nam too, though I could tell by looking at his uniform that he was a clerical-type, not a real soldier you know. The confusion was quickly cleared-up since I had signed my name “Richard J. Arnold;” I do not recall what his middle initial was, but it wasn’t J! Now tell me truth isn’t stranger than fiction! I mean, what are the odds of two homeward-bound soldiers with the same name meeting under those circumstances? Tell you something else—I got the last available seat! Made me a firm believer in the power of the Patron Saint of Infantry—whom ever that is. I mean, if there is a God in the heavens at all, it was only justice that a grunt got that last seat instead of a REMF, right?
So I get in Chicago about 8:00 that night and have a one hour wait before catching the connecting flight home. With my arrival time now firmed-up, I call home so someone can meet me at the airport. (I had not called since landing at Seattle). Mom answers the phone and I say, “Hi Mom, I am in Chicago.” and she says, “Dick, what in the world are you doing there?” Now that sets me back a bit, you know—that is not how a call from your returning soldier-son is suppose to go at all. For one brief moment I thought about replying, “Mom, the NVA overran Grant Park and we are here to dig them out, it’s all over the papers, haven’t you heard about it?” Turns-out since the Army had let me come home a few days early she was taken by surprise, having mentally prepared herself for my arrival the next week. I finally make her understand that I was on my way home and she sure was excited and happy!
Now, with the time difference and all they had over two hours to get to the airport—plenty of time even, from Martinsville. However, as well-documented in “My Mom The Patriot,” this was the same family who had nearly turned an innocent letter into an international incident—so who knew what to expect? True to form, things got complicated. Mom being Mom, dogmatically decreed that ALL the family had to be at the airport. But this was a Saturday night and little brother and sister were out sparkin’. Dave was rather quickly located and was ordered to search for Wendy. With girl friend still in-tow, he checked all the known spots where couples parked but was unable to find her—Wendy and her boyfriend apparently having found a heretofore unknown, pristine location. Dad, being the impatient type and always a half-hour early for all appointments, (a not-so-terrible trait that I inherited) is champin’ at the bit and threatening to, by God, go by himself. Dave finally arrives and Mom decides that ¾ of a loaf is good enough; they leave a note for Wendy and head-out with Dave’s girl friend with them. (She apparently did not mind but I would hazard a guess that no one asked for her opinion.)
So they zip on up and arrive in plenty of time; Dad taking liberties with the speed limit all the way. It is still difficult for me, even over 30 years later, to describe the emotions I felt when I walked off that plane and saw them. Nor, can I think about it yet without becoming emotional. Having steeled yourself for a year against thinking much about this moment for fear it would make you careless and negligent—it was unbelievably sweet to finally release all those pent-up thoughts. Bright Eyes was home; healthy, safe, and mostly sound. It was nice, very nice. And, it was Mother’s Day Eve. What better present for a lady who had ceaselessly supported her son, with body and soul; and who probably did not get a full-nights sleep the whole year I was there.