“Corporal Reeves! Get your gear and follow me” the Gunny said as I hung sleepily onto a dream I was having of cool mountain streams, awaking to Gunny Randall’s course Drill Instructors voice out side my squad’s earth bermed hooch at Quang Tri Combat Base. Home of the Third Marine Division, Republic of Viet Nam 1968. I had injured my back falling out of a helicopter into elephant grass on a nameless hill near Khe Sanh. I was not hurting much now so the Gunny had made me the commanding officer’s driver and radioman. I went over to the motor pool with the Gunny.
Gunny Randall was a tall thin hillbilly from Tennessee who had joined the Corp to escape the poverty of the hill county back in the forties, he had served in the big one WWII and Korea, now he was in “This A** hole of the world” to hear him tell it. He was always cussing, the war, officers, the politicians and scum-sucking civilians. But never his beloved Marine Corp! The Gunny was what we called “Old Corp” or “Lifer”, Gunny was one of the good ones as far as a lifer could be.
We got to the motor pool and the Gunny checked out a jeep. “Get in , You are drivin’ Corporal” “Let’s go to Dong Ha, the General is a waitin”! I had a cigarette for breakfast as the Gunny talked all the way to Dong Ha, North of Quang Tri up Highway One. Did I forget to say the Gunny was a talker? In his Southern drawl and with hill billy slang he would talk to a pile of sandbags if no one was available. Working parties knew if they could get the Gunny to talk they could knock off work and listen, even if they had heard it before. All you had to do was ask the Gunny about one of his faded blue tattoos and then you would hear the yarn behind it. You had to pay attention, if you said something bad about the Corp or laughed at the wrong time the Gunny would have you burning crappers forever. “Corporal Reeves do you lack cats?” The Gunny asked. “No Gunny I hate’um.” I replied wondering where this was going. “Wall me n’ th’ Genral’ Go way back an he ask for me t’do him a favor” stated the Gunny. “We are goin t’ pick up a Tiger an deliver the tiger t’ a frien’ o’ th’ Genral.” The laconic marine said. It seems a recon team had been surprised by a tiger in their night position. They of course shot at it but it got away after biting one of the team members. The general hired a gook tiger hunter to track the tiger and they shot it. The tiger hunter wanted the tiger carcass delivered to his apothecary shop, that is drug store in downtown Quang Tri. I had been to Quang Tri before; there was an iron bridge over the river built by the French in 1909. We used it during the day; the bad guys used it during the night. Large banana plantations were south of the city that contained a fortress called the citadel built as a replica of the imperial city in China, like the larger more ornate one in Hue to the South on Highway One. It had been several months since Tet, but skeletons were in the wire of the wall of the citadel to remind us of the fighting that took place there. We visited the city when we could as the people were friendly, the girls beautiful and our money welcome, only the army dudes guarding the city did not like marines and would run us out or cite us for just being there if we had no pass. I day dreamed as we drove North to Dong Ha, rice paddies streched to the hills miles to the West and to the horizon to the East. The Army of the Republic of South Viet Nam had a bunker system they called a base about halfway. Their yellow and red striped flag fluttered in the breeze. They had shot some Viet Cong and had the bodies hung on poles out side their wire. The gunny remarked ”Them damn gooks done shot some gook and looky how brave they are! The #*&* rag of a flag Yaller for what they is and red fer t’ blud they ain’t shed!” Then he cussed a blue streak. “ I will take a Korean any day to watch ma’ back ‘fore I’ll trust one a’ these local slopes!” He finally said. We finally arrived at the large Marine base at Dong Ha, Third Marine Division forward headquarters was here. In range of the big guns the NVA had in the DMZ, the ammo dump had went up one time before and I hoped it would not today. Everyone lived in bunkers and earth bermed South East Asia Hooches. This was a outpost much like Khe Sanh with out the publicity. Trenches and walls of green sandbags in easy access were everywhere for rockets would come slamming in with out warning. We drove in and went to the commanding generals position. The Gunny was primping, and trying to square away, slapping away the red dust of the drive in the open jeep. A heavy set man about my 5 ft 6 inch height strides toward us, snapping a salute he returns ours and grabs the Gunny’s hand and swings him around they greet each other then look towards a large animal hung up on a sign board frame.
I meet General Ray Davis, Medal of Honor winner from Georgia, Hero of the “Frozen Chosin”, The Canal and Peleliu , now commanding the Third Division in Northern I Corp. He tells the Gunny and I where to take the Tiger, writes us a pass and with a snap of a salute we don’t have time to return is gone. Note: Thirty five years later I meet the General and he remembers this day with details. I turn and look at our charge, a skinned cat of around 500 pounds. Gutted and skinned it is an obscene animal, teeth bared claws extended it looks menacing. It smells worse, dead two days, bullet holes, flies everywhere. A staff sergeant and a few snuffies come over and we load the tiger into the back of the jeep. We drive down to the Staff Non Commissioned Officers Club as per the gunny’s instructions. He says ”Reeves you go to this address and see this man, unload the tiger and then hustle back and pick me up here. If something happens radio me on this freq and give me a Sitrep.” I look at him and then the rotting cat in the jeep. The gunny is going to hang out in the club, eat, drink and talk with his bros while I do the grunt work. Well nobodies shooting at me I think on the brighter side. I drive the cat wagon out of the base, the MPs laugh at me as I leave. I speed south towards Quang Tri at near top speed of the M151 around 50 miles an hour to keep the smell and flies behind me. There is little traffic this day on Highway One, a few ARVN trucks and US Army vehicles, gooks on bicycles going to market, a stretch of highway opens into the banana plantation and I am alone on the highway that the French called “The Street without Joy”, but it is a beautiful day and I enjoy driving along. Fields of banana trees line the road. I see no one although a Army trooper was kidnapped on the road a few weeks before, his mutilated body found miles away from his burned vehicle. I cross the iron bridge built by the French in 1909 guarded by ARVN solders and remember when the NVA held the city during the last Tet. The NVA do not blow the bridge because they know they will need it when they invade in force later. The South Viet troops guarding the bridge are laying around smoking in the shade, they pay no attention to me or the rest of the traffic on the bridge. One shoots his U.S. made M-16 into the trees to kill a monkey as I pass. I arrive at the US Army military gate into the city. The M.P.s are all polished and self-righteous in their starched utilities and spit shined boots. The solders are all laughing at the carcass of the cat in my jeep until they get the smell. The Sergeant of the Guard examines my pass but does not challenge it. He tells me ”Be out by dark jarhead!” They all are glad to see me go when they catch a wiff of the cat. I locate the address of the drug store that Mr. Sang operates on a side street off the main drag. I enter and Mr. Sang greets me. We shake hands and he opens the gates to his courtyard, neighbors gather and they take the stink’in cat out of my jeep and place it in a large pot that is already boiling. I wander around and a very nicely dressed older Vietnamese lady brings me a bowl of rice with tiny shrimp in it. Another women brings me a cold beer. I set in the shade and watch as they pull the flesh off the tiger as it boils. Later Mr. Sang takes me inside and shows me his guns, an old shotgun made in Belgium that he shot many Tigers with he tells me. We share a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch he pulls out from a intricately carved cabinet. We sip the whiskey and try to talk about hunting and other stuff, he has limited English and I only know enough Viet to get in trouble. He goes out several times to retrieve parts of the tiger that he shows me very proudly. The teeth, claws, and balls of the cat are especially exciting to the old man. He explains that these are powerful medicines that he will sell. When he is done there is nothing left of the cat. The drug store is a combination witch doctors cave and magic store. Dusty bottles of various things, shelves of pill bottles with Chinese writing, crates of medicines cover the floor, the writing is all foreign. I wonder what he sells to whom, and then I realize I am too messed up to drive back. I stumble over to the jeep and try to raise the gunny on the radio; I get an operator that will relay my message to him. I tell the operator I won’t be back today.
I ask Mr. Sang where I can stay and he shows me a wooden bed. I decline, for I realize it is his family’s bed he is offering. I leave asking what time I can get my jeep and I walk off into the evening air of the city. I buy a plate of rice and some kind of vegetables from a street vendor; a cold tiger 33 beer and life is good. I find a bar that has rooms to rent and take one for the night. The gunny would understand no one would travel the road at night with out good reason and a Sherman tank or two for escort. I look out onto the street below after a wash down of tepid water in the “shower” of my room. The hotel was built by the French in the 20’s and has not looked good since the 50’s when the French were beaten and kicked out of the country. The cracked stucco of the walls and broken glass of the windows are not nice but way more style than the sand bags walls of the hooch I share back at the base. I have a door I can try to lock, a sink, set down toilet that seems to work after a fashion, and cold water shower that has only a pipe coming out of the wall. I set on the tiny porch overlooking the main drag to catch the evening breeze, smoke and drink a cool, not cold tiger “33” beer. My 16 is across my lap as beautiful girls in ah daios walk along the street. This city does have sidewalks, paved streets, stores and a market place, lots of concrete and stone buildings built by the French. A U.S. Aid team gave a rural village a cement plant. The VC kept shooting up the place and ran the AID workers off. The villagers built the plant themselves, it was like a giant erector set, instructions were in English. The villagers were pleased with the plant until they tried to use it. First day it shook it’s self-apart. Seems the villagers used the nuts and bolts like nails or rivets, hammered it together. Just the same a SeeBee related afterwards the VC would have blown it up unless they could not get to use it. I like SeeBee’s they had a compound at the big base north of here called Quang Tri Combat base. We would sneak in to watch flicks and drink cold beer. I was up near the river north of Dong Ha one day with a patrol that walked the road to the river junction from the ferry landing. The SeeBees were building a harbor and dock for big boats on the river. We would walk down the road as a guard for the minesweepers that checked the road for explosives each day. At a crossroads there were some gooks selling cold drinks in little roadside stands. We would hang out there after our sweep and catch a ride back to Dong Ha base or where ever our unit was. The SeeBees were using heavy earthmovers to transport dirt and rock to the landing. Big articulated earth movers, tires 12 feet tall, huge yellow ugly, loud machines, driven by dirt covered SeeBees. The heat that day was remarkable even by Nam standards as we drank tiger “33” beer in the shade and watched the Army MP direct traffic at the crossroads.
Every few minutes a SeeBee would roar by at a fast clip with a load of dirt and raise clouds of red dust that covered everything. We watched an old papasan with conical hat, bent over his walking cane shuffle along the road. Bill, a marine from Texas says” Ole papasan better hustle up or them earth movers will send him to his ancestors!” The old man is close to the road, and by now the MP, an Army dude that looks like a new guy, called an “ FNG”, with his white helmet, polished boots and starched utilities, he looks out of place in the dirt and heat of this intersection. Now the MP is screaming at the old man, pointing down the road at a dust cloud with a yellow steel center coming fast. The MP is blowing his whistle and then he pulls his .45 and fires into the air, papasan does not look or stop, intent on his journey He does not hear anything, his dirty white pajamas of an elder flapping as he shuffled down the middle of the road. The MP is on the other side of the roaring dust cloud of SeeBee earthmover as the first tire hits the old man, the three tires of the earthmover roll over him without slowing down as the SeeBee driving is oblivious to the drama at this intersection. We walk out to the road after the dust settles and look at the greasy spot, the bewildered MP and the mamasans that come out to wail at the remains of the papasan. Bill says ”There it is!” and we walk away towards our base to catch a ride on one the 6 bys going our way.
I walk the street in the early morning, very few townspeople are out yet the fog is covering the river and the air is cool. I look for a shop selling food and find a storefront selling rice with bits of meat and stuff wrapped in a banana leaf, I wash it down with another tiger piss beer. I see a girl walk into a shop in one of those Viet dresses, an Ah Dio kind of a pant suit of silk. I follow her into the store and find it is a cloth shop and she is looking at fabric, I go to the opposite side of the table of cloth she is looking at and watch her. She is a beauty of about 20; it is hard to tell in these Asian women when they are young. Her dark hair is a raven’s wing; her skin is the color of coffee with too much cream. She shyly looks at me and I grin widely, she blushes and looks away. I say hello, and ask her name, she does not reply, walking away, covering her mouth shyly. I walk slowly towards her direction of travel and almost run into mamasan, the owner of the store. She shakes her finger at me and chatters in Viet right under my nose. I look at her, an old crone with betel nut blacked teeth and laugh as I back up and turn to go. The girl is watching me as I leave, giggling and talking to the shopkeeper. I go on down to the “Drug Store” where the tiger and my jeep are, entering the courtyard several gooks are already at work, grinding bones I find out, making medicine to cure all ills, Mr. Sang shares with me. Then I see the girl coming into the courtyard, going up the steps to the families’ rooms above the shop. She smiles when she sees me.
Mr. Sang could not help but notice my attention is drawn to the girl. I can’t help but collect she is one of his daughters. We talk a little more. He in French Viet and broken English, I in slang Viet. He asks me to return and bring more tigers. I promise to very soon return and souvenir him Bukoo Tigers. The girl’s smile over her shoulder haunts me as I leave.
The Gunny is still at the club when I return, he is hung over but happy to see me and tells me one more time how he and the General were at the Frozen Chosin, in Korea, seems they shot thousands of Chinese and saved America from the Red peril.
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