Tiger Tale Quang Tri 68

“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 Instructor's voice out side my squad’s earth bermed hooch at Quang Tri Combat Base. Home of the Third Marine Division, Republic of Viet Nam. 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 corps 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 Azshole 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 Corps! The Gunny was what we called “Old Corps” 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 Corps 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 starched 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 an 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 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. Meet General Ray Davis, twice Medal of Honor winner from Georgia, Hero of the “Frozen Chosin”, now commanding the Third Division in Northern I Corps. 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 soldiers 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 soldiers 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 shrimp in it. Another woman 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 walkoff 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. I could have been beautiful.

Sonny Reeves

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